Tag Archives: Design Principles

Humanizing the Big Numbers

This recent article from Fast Company provides some great examples of how to make the statistics of big numbers more meaningful to the average person. This is a great skill to hone. Relating events or ideas to common human experiences helps make these things more easy to to understand and leads to more productive discussions.The approach is similar to developing the “return on investment” for a business case. The more clearly you can show the benefits of a particular solution, the more likely you are to gain traction with the people you are trying to influence:

“A good statistic is one that aids a decision or shapes an opinion. For a stat to do either of those, it must be dragged within the everyday. That’s your job — to do the dragging. In our world of billions and trillions, that can be a lot of manual labor. But it’s worth it: A number people can grasp is a number that can make a difference.”

It is also similar to the concept of human scale in architecture. The design of things like stairs, steps, seats, doors, windows, railings, hallways, ceilings, tables and shelves are all influenced by the physical and sensory capabilities of human beings. You can play with this scale to make things appear either monumental or intimate but the range of variability is limited to what people can actually use. People find places designed for automobiles — like parking structures, arterial streets or big box retail stores — alien and uncomfortable. The same is true for numbers or statistics that fall outside the range of human comprehension.

So what is the “Goldilocks zone” for these measures? It depends on the metric, of course, but here are a few guidelines off the top of my head:

Too Big Too Small Just Right
Time Eon, Millennia Nanosecond Second, Minute, Hour, Month, Year
Distance Parsec, Light Year, Astronomical Unit Angstrom, Micron Inch, Foot, Yard, Mile, Centimeter, Meter, Kilometer
Temperature Planck temperature Absolute Zero Room Temperature
Mass/Weight* Solar Mass Atomic Mass Unit Ounce, Pound, Gram, Kilogram
Objects Star, Galaxy Molecule, Atom, Subatomic Particle Building, Car, Book, Tool
Electromagnetic Spectrum Radio Wave, Microwave Gamma Ray, X-ray Visible Light

* Yes, I know.

Updates:

  • A KISS isn’t Always Just a Kiss

    One of the first design principles I remember learning in architecture school was the acronym KISS or ‘keep it simple, stupid.’ The professor who said this phrase clearly intended it to serve as a warning to students not to bite off more than they could chew. Not exactly a vote of confidence but it at least it introduced us to idea that broad design concepts could be used to help make individual design decisions.

    There are many modern artistic movements that adopt this ‘less is more’ philosophy and focus solely on the inherent elegance of clean, unadorned design. The problem with this interpretation is that it still misses the mark regarding simplicity. There is a difference between minimalism — the idea of reducing something to its essential components — and simplicity — the idea of reducing overall complexity. Minimalism is almost entirely driven by the creative desires of the designer while simplicity must also take into account the needs of the user. Simplicity is often harder to acheive because it requires designers and engineers to anticipate problems and relationships that aren’t always readily apparent.

    Perhaps a more appropriate interpretation of KISS (and one that appears to be closer to the original intent of the term) might be ‘keep it simple and stupid.’ This shifts attention away from the designer and toward the user and their relationship with the designed object. This isn’t to say that the user is an idiot, but that a good design shouldn’t require them to think more than is necessary. The relationship between the user and the object should be as natural as possible. In a sense, good design shifts the burden of thinking away from the user and places it on the shoulders of the designer. This takes more effort on the part of the designer.