structure, standards and style

I’m thinking about the nature of standards a lot lately. So this is a full-on blather about them… […]

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…


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  1. 1
    ellie o'style

    Don’t you mean “principles”?

    Interesting that there’s a “spell check” button on this comment tool.

  2. 3

    Stephen Covey (author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) is big on principles. From studying his work and finally raising my head from his books helped me understand the point.

    Principles are the underlying ways in which things work. This is regardless of what we do as humans. You can look at gravity as an underlying principle of the universe (though there are different magnitudes in different places). For example, let’s say you are standing underneath a building and you see a piano falling from the sky towards you. The principle of gravity is in action at the moment. Regardless of what you do, gravity will work. Now, I think humans work under the rule that if they see a piano falling on top of their head, they will run in some direction to get out of the way. Another human may have a different rule, for example, to jump up and down and scream. Another may pass out. Now, gravity still continues on its course. As you can see, some rules are more effective than others. Jumping up and down and fainting won’t stop the piano from killing you, although, running out of the way will.

    Now, that’s a really bad example, but I had fun writing it. Seriously, though, rules are the practices we adopt from our interpretation of the principle in a particular context.

    For example, a principle of human activity is that everything created in the real world is created twice, once in the brain of the human and then once in the tangible physical world. That is the principle. (In fact, this is the underlying principle behind Habit 2, Begin with the End in Mind.) This happens whether or not we plan. The word “word” is in my head before it appears on the screen. The time from creation in my head to creation in the physical world is almost instant.

    The key with principles is that they are always true. You know what isn’t a principle if it seems illogical (or is completely impossible) to argue the opposite (gravity never makes objects fall down). Now, if the principle is always at work, the best thing you can do to ensure success in your life is to align your actions in support of it (because you will break yourself against the principle if you don’t).

    If everything is created twice, first in the mind, then the world, then why not take charge of the first creation. If you extend the time between the first creation and the second creation then you may make more efficient use of the second creation. See, we know that doing things in the tangible world is more costly and time consuming than doing things in our head. This is why we plan. This is why we design. In fact, this principle is the underlying reason for design.

    Take the time to plan the creation of the damn thing before you bring it into the tangible world. So, I tried to explain principles above.

    Now, what’s the rule, or what Covey likes to call the practice? Well, in the book, the particular practice he promotes for Habit 2 is to create a Mission Statement. If you are going to run around everyday and do stuff, why not sit down, take charge of the first creation and make a plan for something that will guide all the things you will do.

    In our work, we sketch on the whiteboard before we draw on the computer. We draw on the computer before we program the code. We identify the goals of our projects and clients before we fully engage in the project.

    Principle: All things are created twice.
    Practice 1: Sketch on whiteboard before using Photoshop.
    Practice 2: Sketch on paper before using Photoshop.
    Practice 3: Take a minute to think about it before using Photoshop.

    Learning rules, or practices, helps us align ourselves with the principles, but we do a disservice to ourselves down the line if we never understand the principle at work. If we don’t understand the underlying principle at work, we make ourselves automatically incompetent in different situations because we can’t adjust since we’ve just learned the rule, not the principle.

    I don’t go through the exercise of creating mission, vision, value and strategy statements when I design a piece of software (like I would when running a company). But, I know the principle at work, so I go through the exercise of creating Personas, project goals and scenarios before I design the software.

    All right… that’s enough for now. 🙂 Has anyone actually read this far or followed any of the rambling above?

  3. 4

    I read it all. lovely. lots to think about.

    so tell me; how is a principle different from a fact? I had considered principles more like tested hypotheses– very likely true, but short of fact.

  4. 5

    Well, facts aren’t nearly as useful or revealing. I guess you can say a principle is a fact, but a fact isn’t a principle.

    Fact: I have 457,342 hairs on my head.
    Fact: Gravity pulls things downward.

    Which is more useful? Actually, I really never considered them similar until you asked that. 🙂

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