The Ten Principles for Good Design, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on May 17, 2010

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Two weeks ago, I talked about a new biweekly meeting that Brian Tinsman put together to allow all the designers of R&D to gather together and share ideas with one another. The idea is that at each meeting a different designer gives a presentation on any design-related topic he chooses. The presentations are a jumping off point for discussions most often leading back to the design we do on our games. For my first presentation I examined a document called "10 Principles for Good Design" by a German industrial designer named Dieter Rams. My contention was that design is design no matter if you're making instants and creatures or lamps and clocks.

For each principle, I am talking about what I feel it means and how it affects Magic design. The first five principles were discussed in Part 1 and the second five will be discussed in today's column. If you haven't read Part 1, I strongly urge you to do so because I'm writing this column assuming you have. Let me refresh everyone's memory by showing you the list:

Dieter Rams's Ten Principles for Good Design

1) Good design is innovative.
2) Good design makes a product useful.
3) Good design is aesthetic.
4) Good design helps us to understand a product.?
5) Good design is unobtrusive.
6) Good design is honest.
7) Good design is durable.
8) Good design is consequent to the last detail.
9) Good design is concerned with the environment.
10) Good design is as little design as possible.

I was so impressed with this list that I hung it up near my desk as a reminder of what I'm supposed to be thinking about. I'll start today by just jumping in.

6) Good design is honest.

I've taken numerous creative writing courses in my life. My favorite was one I took in college taught by a female English professor. Unlike most of the creative writing courses I took, my teacher was not herself focused on writing, but on observing and understanding the writings of others. She wasn't interested in making the wine; she wanted to taste it. She was a connoisseur of creative fiction. It was a unique vantage point for a creative writing teacher and it allowed her some insight that I never found in another class. (Yes, by the way, she was the one who had us write about the serial killer having breakfast. Click here if you don't know what I'm talking about.)

One day, she asked the class the following question: What is the most important responsibility for a writer? Her answer—to be honest. To be honest to what, we asked? To everything—to yourself as a writer, to your characters, to your story, to your audience. The most important task of writing, she felt, was finding the truth in the story you were telling. What exactly does that mean? She answered that the core of writing was about observation and communication. You, the writer, were searching for some truth about the human condition and once you found it you were digging down to its essence, then sharing that with your audience.

Another way to think about this is to approach it from the other side, as a reader. Think back to books that have spoken to you. What makes you love a book? Chances are the author managed to find something that you could really connect to, some basic idea that spoke to your core. The writer put into words something you were always feeling but never had the ability to express. The author made a connection with you, the reader, perhaps emotionally, spiritually, logically. They said something in a way that no one else was able to.

If the ultimate role of an author is to make that kind of deep connection, then it is fundamentally important that they approach the situation at hand as honestly as they can. If they are going to dig up truths, they have to be honest with themselves in the search for those truths. Why is this hard to do? Simply put, people lie to themselves all the time. Life is often awkward and uncomfortable. Certain facts are painful to deal with. As such, humans are pretty good at avoiding things that would be painful if actually confronted. Authors, though, don't have the luxury of avoiding these things. They have to face them head on, and that is not easy to do.

What does any of this have to do with design? Everything, of course. I believe that authors do not stand alone in their quest for truth. I believe all artists struggle fundamentally with the same issue. As I feel designers are artists, perhaps you can see where I'm going.

A game designer has a similar task at hand. It is our job to create a game that seeks out the same type of connection with our audience. We too, are trying to find truths. The big difference is that our truths are a different kind of truth than an author looks to find. Why? Because we are working in different mediums. Writing is about words; it's about communication. Games are about actions; they are about decisions. The way a game designer helps his audience find a fundamental truth is by forcing him or her to encounter a situation that parallels something from their life.

I'll give an example. One of the truths that games can connect on is adversity. One of the truisms of life is that there are hard decisions that have to be made. These decisions are difficult to make in the moment but shape us into who we are as individuals. The feeling of pulling through adversity, the emotions of stepping up to a challenge and finding what it takes inside of you to make the hard decisions when bad things are happening all around you is a universal feeling. Games allow you access to that feeling in a much safer environment, much as books can allow you to emotionally connect with feelings that would be much scarier to face in the real world. Games, much like books, have great potential for catharsis and identification.

How does this apply to Magic design? It says that designers have to be willing to examine what they do from the macro (block design) to the micro (card design) and make choices that come out of pursuing what the different element needs to be. Part of this is being willing to listen to your intuition about what feels right. Part of this is making sure that the flavor matches your mechanic. Part of this is making sure that your little picture matches your big picture, that common has the same message as mythic rare, that your creatures are communicating the same message as your instants.

Being honest means making sure that you aren't letting your love of craft overstep your vision. Your cards shouldn't be about what you can do but what you need to do. Cards need to ring true both in a vacuum and in conjunction with one another. Things need to do what your audience expects them to do. In short, being honest as a Magic designer means taking all the steps necessary to have your cards serve the vision.

7) Good design is durable.

When I was a baby, I was given the gift of a soft, fluffy bright yellow baby blanket. Eventually it became a soft, not so fluffy, dull yellow baby blanket. My earliest memory of it was as a soft brown blanket that I slept with. In my youth, I carried my blanket (named, by me of course, "Blanket") everywhere I went. Eventually, my parents told me that Blanket was getting beaten up enough that it wasn't a good idea to take it out of the house, as having to clean it would probably do significant damage to it. Some time later, my parents informed me that Blanket really should just stay in my room. I could sleep with it at night, but Blanket had to curtail most of its daytime activities. Then around age seven, Blanket, as I remember it, slowly vanished.

One day, when I was fourteen, while riding up a chairlift with my mother (most of my families vacations in my youth were ski vacations), she mentioned off-handedly about the time they "cut up my baby blanket". What?! She went on to tell the story about how when I was seven, she and my dad contacted my pediatrician because they were worried that I was getting a little old for a baby blanket. The doctor agreed and made the following suggestion: each night over the course of several months, they come into my room when I was sleeping and cut a tiny bit around the edges of my baby blanket. This way the blanket would slowly shrink over time. When it got small enough, they could convince me to put it away in a memory book so it doesn't get lost.

Apparently a seven-year-old doesn't have the ability to notice that his beloved blanket is slowly shrinking or at least lacks the understanding that it isn't supposed to do that, so it worked. That is, until that fateful day on the chairlift. I was genuinely upset. I had very warm memories of Blanket and learning that it came to such a grizzly end was quite bothersome to me. As I spent time thinking about it, an important question came to me. Why did it bother me so much? Because, I answered, it was my most beloved childhood item.

Many years later looking back at this incident (the discovering of its removal more so than the removal itself), I am forced to ask myself the following question: what made it my most beloved childhood item? All the memories I had with it, of course. But why did I have so many memories of it? How did it beat out my rattle and my pacifier or one of my other myriad baby blankets? One simple reason—it just lasted longer than any of them. It had so many memories because it was around. The most important trait of my beloved Blanket—durability.

If you want to create something to last the test of time it has to, well, last the test of time. I often talk about how we think about Magic. As far as R&D is concerned, we're not making a flash in the pan but a game we expect to outlive us all. What this means to design is that when I design a card I think long term. Am I making something that we could bring back the next time we revisit this theme? My goal isn't just to make cards that play well in the present, I'm shooting for making something classic. This drive is important because it raises the bar on your design. Disposable things use disposable ideas. Classic things use timeless ideas.

The mindset of your design is important because when you boil it all down, design is a mental activity. If you approach your problem merely looking for any answer, you will find the first one you stumble across then stop looking. When you raise the bar, you challenge yourself to look past the easy answers, to find the ones that allow what you are doing to transcend craft into art. As a Magic designer, I feel my best work will be able to stand up to the comparisons of those who follow in my footsteps. I feel that way because I know my work was aiming higher than filling holes in a file. When I design, I search for answers and, if need be, I'll search for questions.

Along the way to making a classic game, you will have to put your design through many tests. The most important one though is the test of time. If you can make something that transcends your set to become part of your game, that is the ultimate legacy as a game designer

8) Good design is consequent to the last detail.

One of the things that happens when you write week in and week out for years is that you start to find not just your voice but your personal themes. I've talked about how I once had a writing teacher (different one) that claimed that every writer had a singular theme. That if you examined the entirety of any one author's work you will find a singular theme connecting them. As a thought exercise, she asked us if we could recognize our own theme.

After much thought, and much rereading of my writing, I came to the conclusion that my personal theme is this: while people try to use reason and logic to govern their life, people are, at their core, run by their emotions. I figured this out while directing a one act play in which the main character solves an ethical dilemma by having his emotions fight it out in a board meeting. (The play was called Leggo My Ego for those of you that keep updating my wikipedia page.)

So, what happens when I show up at R&D? I create player psychographics to help explain what things emotionally satisfy each of our different types of players. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, read this.) We as game designers can try to logically deduce what our players want, but in the end we have to understand their emotions to truly deliver the best experience.

What does all that have to do with this point? As I like to say—everything. Part of understanding emotions is understanding what makes them tick? While there are many answers to that question, one answer is this—it's the little things. People have trouble focusing on the big picture, but they are great at observing the minutiae. As such, they put a lot of emotional weight on the little things clicking. The feeling is that if the artist manages to make all the little things work that it is symptomatic that the larger pieces are thought out as well.

The best example I can use to explain this is to think of your favorite television show. Think of a moment that really endeared you to it. I'll give you one of mine for one of my favorite shows of all time, "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer." In one of the early episodes of the first season, Buffy fought a witch that was trying to live out her former high school glory through her daughter. The episode involves Buffy having to become a cheerleader, but that's not important right now. (For the record, this episode was below average for the series at large.) The show ended with the witch being trapped inside a cheerleading trophy. We see a close-up of the trophy's face, the eyes open up and we get that she's trapped there.

Flash forward to a few seasons later. There's a scene in the high school where a character named Oz (played by Seth Green) is waiting for Buffy. As he does he's looking at the trophy case. As Buffy approaches Oz, Oz makes a comment about how one of the trophies is looking around. Now, it's a throw-away line. Its only purpose really was to remind the audience that Joss Whedon and his writers, like us, are fans of the show and that they remember the little things. The moment, while irrelevant to that show, really stuck with me. It made me feel good about myself and good about the show.

That's why I (and the rest of R&D) work hard to create those "trophy eyes" moments. It's why we spend hours upon hours working on the tiniest of tiny details. Every facet of Magic is going to be explored by someone. When they do, I want to have already been there. Little things matter because to people, little things matter.

9) Good design is concerned with the environment.

I believe this point is, of the ten, the one most often misinterpreted. Most people at first blush think Rams is talking about being ecologically friendly. While it's a nice thought (and yes, we should be where we can), it's not, I believe, what Rams is talking about. (There is a chance I am completely wrong and if I am—go ecology!) Rams didn't refer to the "nature and trees and stuff" environment but rather the environment in which the item being designed is to be used. If an industrial designer is making a lamp, he has to think about where that lamp is going to sit. Not just where, but how and by whom. What Rams is talking about here is—understanding where your design fits into the life of the person using it.

In Magic, this means numerous things. When designing a card, the designer has to be conscious of where the card will be played. Cards don't live in a vacuum. They are part of numerous ecosystems. A designer has to think about that as they design. The reason we have a lead designer for each set is that it is crucial to have one person whose responsibility it is to look at all the cards in a set holistically. To use a metaphor (and I do love my metaphors), designing a set is much like cooking a meal. A cook isn't just making various foods, he is making a meal using those various foods. Each has to be thought of in conjunction with the rest. If you watch world-class chefs, they do a lot of sampling of their food as they are constantly trying to monitor where the food is at so that they can make adjustments if needed.

Our food tastings are playtests and the method is not that far apart. In fact, one of the most important skills in design is the ability to learn from playtests. Just as a classic chef has to be able to gauge everything with a spoonful, so too does a designer has to be able to absorb as much as he can from playing with the cards. Only then, can a designer begin to understand what has to change. What needs to be added to round out a theme or subtracted to push focus back in a certain direction?

They say "no man is an island." (That's why whenever I would run Big MagicMagic played at premiere events with giant cards each manipulated by a volunteer from the audience—I always picked a female to handle the islands.) Neither, I argue, is a Magic card. Well, okay I guess an Islandis a Magic card, but if you go more philosophical and less literal, my point will stand. Each card lives in a context that the designer has to understand. Failure to do so will result in a set that doesn't hold together.

10) Good design is as little design as possible.


You have no idea how much willpower it took for me to not just make that last paragraph the entire comment on this point. (For those new readers joining us, I'm a high concept kind of guy.) Like Point #8, this is a design area that I talk about a lot. If your game can exist without a component, then that component shouldn't be in the game. Anything that can be excised from your design should be.

Why? Why is that so? The reasoning dovetails back into something I talked about in point #6. At its core, art is about communication. You, the artist, are trying to connect with your audience. The more you clutter your message the harder it is to deliver it. The same holds true for card design. If I want you to focus on a particular aspect of a card, every addition just dilutes my message.

A second reason simplicity of concept is so important is that a trading card game is, by definition, a mixing of elements. At its very core, the player gets to pick and choose his deck from thousands of options. That means at minimum there are sixty different cards being forced to commingle. In order to keep the game elegant, you have to make all the pieces as clean as you can because you cannot avoid the complication that comes from the intermixing of the cards.

Thirdly (I hope that's a word), design has to always be conscious of resources. While there is a large amount of design space, it is finite. Designers do not have the luxury of wasting design resources. If a card can accomplish what it needs with just one piece it doesn't need a second—save it to make some other card shine. One of the most common mistakes I see when looking at novice designs is an inability to trust that one aspect is enough to carry the card. So many first designs are overstuffed with every thing the designer can think of. Not only are they wasting a valuable resource, they've so stuffed the card that no element has a chance to shine. Remember the truism above, even in card design: if something can be removed and the card will work, it needs to be removed.

Another common mistake made by designers under this point is something I talked about above. Be careful to not fall in love with the craft of the design. Instead of creating designs they need, designers create designs they can. They make cards solely because the cards are capable of being made, even if those designs have no role in the larger picture. It is this desire to add bells and whistles to designs that I think prompted Rams to include this last point. Good design has to look past what is possible for what is required.

Rams Tough

I put this presentation together because I am fascinated by design as an overall concept. As I've explained numerous times, I don't see that much difference between designing a clock radio and designing a Magic set. This belief was only further entrenched as I starting looking through what Rams had to say about design. Without fail, every point is an important one to Magic design. If a man who designs lamps for a living can help make me a better Magic designer, then it helps prove my point that design is universal.

I'm particularly curious to hear feedback on this article. It seems that I'm just touching the tip of the iceberg on all these points, meaning there's probably a few good column ideas floating around in this two-parter. As always you can leave a message in the thread, drop me an email or even tweet me on Twitter (@maro254).

Join me next week when I pick you up on the rebound.

Until then, may Dieter Rams help you improve what you do.

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