Several years ago, David Cole shared a thought that lodged in my mind. At the time, he was making self-constructed LEGO sets of animals. He’d create a design at home, and once he was satisfied, he’d go online and order multiples of each piece. From there, he’d bundle the pieces together into packets and make a zine with assembly instructions. Presto: a home-spun LEGO set to construct a small, blocky critter for your desk, bookshelf, or other esteemed place in your home.
David was talking about his mindset while creating his designs, and he said something to the effect of, “You have to find the smallest part of the animal you want in your design, and make that the 1×1 brick. The proportions for everything else comes from there. It’s the only way to make sure you can fit in everything you need.”
He was right. At the end his fox’s snout is a perfect, black, 1×1 LEGO brick nose. When it came to LEGO, David was a nose-first designer: start with the smallest unit and work your way out. Inside to outside. There were design parallels all over the place, from architecture to industrial design to interfaces.
There are, of course, situations when design happens in the opposite direction. A few weeks after that conversation with David, I moved to a new apartment in Brooklyn.
Maybe this isn’t necessary to say, but I will for the sake of comprehensiveness: apartments in New York City are damn small. Especially the bedrooms. Many require side-long shuffling along the perimeter of the bed to maneuver in and out of the room. My new apartment was one of these awkward places. There are design challenges in arranging a New York City apartment to be sure, but the scant proportions makes the interior layout of most NYC bedrooms straight-forward: you put the bed in the one place it fits.
In some cases, space is fixed, so we must design from the boundaries in. This often applies to interior design, but also closely matches my experience in book and magazine design, where the page dimensions are already decided. How do we use the space we’ve got? Outside to inside.
Which leads us to a question relevant to this redesign: how big is a website? What are their dimensions? Pick one:
- No specific size.
- All sizes.
- Shut up, Frank.
All answers are correct. Browser windows can change in size, so outer dimensions are variable. We have no solid boundaries to push against when it comes to the web’s variable canvas, so it’s best to use the nose-first, small-to-big, inside-to-outside approach. Since my page will mostly be documents, and documents are for reading, our smallest unit becomes, of course, the word.