You are on page 1of 2


Universal Design
In the course of both way things grow and the shapes they Because our perceptual systems are
learning and applying the take. In this work, Thompson examines adapted to the space in which we live,
techniques of visual an array of physical constraints that these other spaces cannot be perceived
design, I have been struck explain the necessary size of elephants directly, although they can be described
by the degree to which and ants, as well as the spiral, rather mathematically.
O the average person is than cylindrical, shape of animal horns.
• ~ capable of judging Stevens' Patterns in Nature (1974) sup- How these various shapes and patterns
•g..a whether or not a particu- plements and extends Thompson's work actually come into being can be attrib-
lar design is pleasing, but to include patterns of many inanimate uted to several factors. The examples
incapable of describing in as well as animate forms, showing that above suggest that things evolve to their
$'-.'4 detail what drives this nature favors combinations of spirals, fittest form; a notion applicable to most
decision. Design courses meanders, branching and three-way living things in the environment. A sec-
4---,) teach basic principles of joints. ond notion involves the principle that
visual design, and indi- things tend toward configurations of
viduals well trained in this Consider, by way of example, three sep- least energy, be it the least motion or the
discipline can provide arate points in space. O f the infinite closest fit.
•,,,,,,",,,,,,,,I explanations in terms number of ways these points might be
such as harmony, con- Regardless of why patterns and shapes
connected together, a configuration that
occur as they do, it is apparent that the
trast, balance, and align- uses connecting lines separated by 120 +
ment. Further, the same world is in fact highly structured. Much
angles uses the least amount of material.
• ""4 basic principles can be of what at first glance appears to be ran-
Such economical three-way junctions of
dom and different in design is in fact
extended to other design 120 ° angles are found widely in nature.
made up of similar basic shapes. Species
domains, such as archi- Soap bubbles, which form minimum
evolving in an environment would ben-
tecture or product design. surfaces that keep the least possible sur-
efit from perceptual systems that reliably
But upon what basis are face area between them, join together
recover these environmental regulari-
these principles derived? with 120 + angles between them. Bees
ties. Because the natural world is made
One possible explanation build hexagonal cells not because of
relates to the constraints of both the up of objects whose shapes are deter-
some innate knowledge of geometry but
physical world and the design of our mined by the constraints of physical
because, given the constraints of physi-
perceptual systems. space, the process of visual perception
cal space, this configuration permits
would be simplified if the information
using the least amount of wax to store
provided by these constraints were avail-
The natural world is filled with diver- the greatest amount of honey while
able in the perceptual stimulus and
sity. One million species of animals, expending the least amount of energy.
detected by the visual system. The study
three hundred thousand species of Cracks in mud, the shape of an insect's
o f the recovery of this information has
plants, and over three thousand types of compound eye, and the joints between
been the focus of investigation from a
minerals have been identified, with the plates of a tortoise shell are further
variety of perspectives.
more being added regularly (Lapedes, examples of this ubiquitous phenome-
1977). To the casual observer, nature non. The Gestalt psychologists were inter-
appears limitless in its ability to create ested in the recovery of structure in
and modify the shape of its creations. The main point here is that the struc- terms of perceptual organization. They
Upon closer examination, however, this ture of space influences the shapes of all proposed "laws of organization" that
myriad of forms is in fact constructed things. Because of spatial structure, the describe what perception would be
from a limited number of relatively sim- possible number of shapes is limited. In given certain stimulus conditions; sim-
ple shapes, determined by the combina- showing that there are other spaces in plicity, similarity, nearness and good
tion of a number of constraints. The which patterns and forms differ from continuation are well known examples.
patterns and forms employed by nature our own, Einstein (1920) helped drive Gibson's (1979) ecological approach
are restricted by the constraints of phys- home the notion that objects assume the provides a more recent example of the
ical space, the relations between area shapes they do because of the way space search for environmental constraints on
and volume, and the need to minimize constrains our world. He showed that visual perception.
resource consumption (Stevens, 1974). the forms and patterns in our own space
would differ from those in other spaces, What all this implies is that the elements
D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and such as the space of atomic particles or of good design are an innate part of the
Form (1942) is a classic account of the at the scale of the universe as a whole. physical and natural world; the same

16 April 1998 Volume30, Number 2 SIGCHI Bulletin

spiral shape can be seen in seashells, ani- Lapedes, D. (1977). McGraw-Hill Ency- j~cal point j~r visual interaction design
mal horns, and flowing water. Over the clopedia of Science and 7bchnolog)~ interest within SIGCHI, to advance
centuries, mankind has abstracted these New York: McGraw-Hill. visual interaction design as an integral
basic principles and applied them to the Stevens, P. S. (1974). Patterns in nature. component of HCI, and to integrate visual
design of artifacts; the same use of sim- Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown. interaction design with the rest o f SIG-
ple lines defines both Shaker architec- Thompson, D'Arcy. (1942). On growth CHL
ture and Bauhaus furniture. However, andj~rm. Cambridge, England: The
little thought has been given as to why University Press. 73 contribute injGrmation to this column,
these elemental topics taught in design send email to or
courses - line, form, shape - serve as the
About the Author, or write to Frank M.
building blocks of all design. I propose Marchak, TASC, 55 Walkers Brook
Frank M. Marchak is Principal Human Drive, Reading, M A 01867, U.S.A. or
that the constraints of our perceptual Factors Engineer at TASC in Reading,
systems and the world around us deter- Shannon Ford, E-Lab LLC, 213 IF~st
Massachusetts, where he leads human- Institute Place, Suite 509, Chicago, IL
mine the basic elements. Those trained computer interaction design and usabil-
in the visual arts can articulate these 60610 U.S.A.
ity engineering efforts for government
structures since they've been trained in and commercial clients. He received the 73 subscribe to the Visual Interaction
their abstract vocabulary. However, even Ph.D. degree in Experimental Psychol- Design ListServ group, send email to
those without training are imbued with ogy from Dartmouth College and the L IS TSER V@ VTVM1. CC. V77ED U
the innate ability to discern these design A.B. degree in psychology from with the single line:
differences, thanks to evolution and Muhlenberg College.
physics. It appears that the notion of
subscribe VISUAL-L <your name>
being able to "know good design when I Contact
see it" has a stronger element of truth in in the body. 7b unsubscribe, send mail to
it than has been previously thought. Frank M. Marchak
TASC the same address with the single line:
55 Walkers Brook Drive
References Reading, MA 01867, USA ,i~off VTSUAL-L

Einstein, A. (1920). Relativity: The spe- in the body 7b communicate with mem-
cial and general theory A popular expo- bers o f the Visual Interaction Design com-
sition. London. Visual Interaction Design is a Special munity, send email to visual-
Interest Area of SIGCHI s~cusing on the l @vtvm I. cc. vt. edu.
Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological visual aspects of interaction in inter~ce
approach to visual perception. Boston: design. The goals of the Visual Interaction You can also access the list via bboard:
Houghton Mifflin Co. Design Special Interest Area are to act as a internet.computing, visual-1

SIGCHI Bulletin Volume 30, Number 2 April 1998 17