I’m thinking about the nature of standards a lot lately. So this is a full-on blather about them…
A couple weeks back, my biz partner, Gabe, was sitting at his desk, surrounded by books: Microsoft Windows User Experience , a similar guide to OS X (which I can’t seem to locate on Amazon), the sun interface standards one, and Elements of Style.
Gabe said “They are all essentially the same book— they all explain the standards, and how to adhere to them to be more effective.”
Today, browsing Digital Web Archives, I came across The Destination Matters More Than the Journey, in which Dean Allen points out that Elements of Style — not just Elements of Typographic Style — is very useful to typographers. Which caused me to re-open Strunk & White’s masterpiece.
The Elements of Style is still the best seven bucks you’ll spend if you want to be better at pretty much any creative act. Not just writing (though it is the book to read if you want to be a better writer. And everyone needs to be a better writer.)
The book does more than give rules of proper English; it provides principles of the art/craft of writing. And these principles are so succinct, so well crafted in themselves, so universal that they apply beyond the art/craft of writing to the act of creativity, no matter what the medium.
There is a big difference between a rule — say, “use blue underlined text for links” — and a principle — “group like items together to provide context and relevance.” The rules are hard and fast and unquestionable– you either live with them or break them. Principles are subtle, hard to learn and hard to unlearn. Rules lend an air of efficient professionalism to your work, a veneer of unassailable propriety. Principles improve your work immeasurably, and move the judgment of your work from “correct” or “incorrect” to “true, real, meaningful, dismaying, disturbing” ;i.e. following a principle can take your work away from being judged for its execution and get it judged for its intention.
Part of the power of the Strunk and White book is the relationship of the Strunk to the White. The first half is written by a English teacher, and has succinct excellent clear cut rules for writing proper English. The second half was written by his pupil, E.B. White, a writer of fiction, and pays attention to the more subtle act of creating compelling writing. Thus the first half is strict rules, the second principles.
From the first section “Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause” which is followed by an explanation and examples.
“Two-part sentences of which the second member is introduced by as (in the sense of ‘because’) for, or, nor, or while (in the sense of “and at the same time”) likewise require a comma before the conjunction.”
From the second section “Do not affect a breezy manner” Which is followed by
“The volume of writing is enormous, these days, and much of it has a sort of windiness about it, almost as though the author were in a state of euphoria. ‘Spontaneous me.’ sang Whitman, and, in his innocence, let loose the hordes of uninspired scribbers who would one day confuse spontaneity with genius.”
The division is not always perfectly neat– Struck gives fine principles such as “Omit needless words” and White lays down the rules– “Do not dress words up by adding ly to them, as though putting a hat on a horse.” But overall it is Strunk’s job to make the rules, White’s to teach you the principles.
Rereading Strunk & White reminds me that while learning the rules is useful, internalizing the principals is vital. Yesterday Gabe and I were talking again, this time about an interface for a project, a weblication. He was stuck with a problem of displaying hierarchal toolsets. He was digging through the Window’s book for a standard to adopt, and was dissatisfied with all the current conventions. The solutions the book presented were ones we’d seen fail in user testing.
I suggested he figure out a way to visually associate each toolset with the item it was modifying. It seemed more sensible to me to simply stick to the more ancient standards of design principles, if recent software standards were lacking. We brainstormed back and forth, and came up with a satisfying design.
So standards, rules, principles… was our solution breaking conventions? true to principals? What are rules, if they don’t make for better designs? useful? hindrances? Even as I write this I begin to think about the power of rules, and all the gradations between rule and principle… when is a rule a rule? a principal a principal? How do standards fit in? What about style?
It’s a lot for a Sunday…