Understand Universal Design Patterns

November 15, 2019 Brandon Waselnuk 3 min read

Have you ever wondered why the ‘save icon’ is still a picture of a floppy disk in most software?

Why masterpieces of art make you look somewhere on a piece and then move your eyes across the work in a predictable pattern? One is commonly know as the Z-patter layout and is used even today in web design.

These are design patterns, something that people have come to understand and accept. If you have a vertical pull bar on a door, people will intuitively try to pull the door open — and trust me, it’s incredibly frustrating when it’s a ‘push’ for some reason with a vertical pull bar. Vox did a whole video on it.

In product you must understand your markets accepted universal design patterns and then work with them. It’s almost never worth undertaking the cost and time to re-educate a user base to operate in a way that is unfamiliar to them, like pushing on a pull bar door.

Observe competitor software, read books, do user interviews where you see how your users work without your product. How have they been doing it before you ever came along? What are they used to?

Use this to inform how you build your products and then when a new customer gives your product a shot, it’ll feel familiar to them and they will intrinsically enjoy the experience that much more.

Rarely you can break these patterns to prove a point, like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres with his piece The Grand Odalisque — where he broke convention by painting a woman with impossible proportions[1]. You can attract attention to something through the careful use of going against an accepted design pattern. Just don’t do it too much — you’ll lose your audience.


[1] This eclectic mix of styles, combining classical form with Romantic themes, prompted harsh criticism when it was first shown in 1814. Critics viewed Ingres as a rebel against the contemporary style of form and content. When the painting was first shown in the Salon of 1819, one critic remarked that the work had “neither bones nor muscle, neither blood, nor life, nor relief, indeed nothing that constitutes imitation”.4 This echoed the general view that Ingres had disregarded anatomical realism.5 Ingres instead favored long lines to convey curvature and sensuality, as well as abundant, even light to tone down the volume.5 Ingres continued to be criticized for his work until the mid-1820s.3