The rules are said to be there for a reason. They are assumed to serve a purpose of order and guidance — a funneling of wills down a corridor of progress.
There's a sense of safety and comfort derived from knowing and following the gospel of the rules at hand. At the same time, it can be a slippery slope of blind faith.
Like any creative I've had a struggle with rules most of my life.
Even the beginning of this site has brought me to a sense of utter frustration over rules. What kind of site is this? Is it a publication, a portfolio, a blog? Do I need to decide what it is before I start? Does there need to be some grand opening statement, or should I just get going?
As a creative I ask myself hundreds of these kinds of questions every day. I'm 20,000 leagues under the sea blipping out my sonar into the black abyss, waiting for my questions to bounce off invisible, constantly moving rules. I'm hoping one of those blips that comes back will let me know that there's an answer out there to what I'm asking, that there's a way this should be done, or not done.
Design needs boundaries to be comfortable and asking questions lets you flesh out where the walls are. But just because there's something out there in the abyss doesn't mean it's friendly.
The Biology of Rules
Rules are more organic than we give them credit for. They have a biology all their own. They grow and evolve with us, and despite us. They spread like viruses, and are just as stubborn to get rid of. Like any wild animal they deserve both respect and caution.
The Rule Spectrum - Species
Oftentimes there are rules that are moved from one field to another regardless of their similarity. These rules come with many challenges and always present a default red flag.
As Typography has grown immensely in the web space there are a lot of print rules that have been transposed over, for obvious reasons.
Caution is needed in situations of transposed rules because the environment in which the original rules were grown is not the same one you are trying to transplant them into.
Something I've noticed is that many print designers enjoy the use of smaller typefaces in print material. I feel this is primarily due to the proximity at which printed materials are often read. A shorter reading distance allows for a smaller typeface.
In the web world, the use of small typefaces has been something I've tried to grow out of more and more. Lately, I see sites with good typographic sense using much larger typefaces in their body copy than one would ever see on a printed page.
Well, generally for improved readability.
This is a case where transposed rules don't overlay properly because they don't take into consideration the changes in the medium.
Rules of Convention
Your boss wants a new website for X business. You are then instructed to go out and gather the features, look & feel, color schemes, and other such bits and bobs of sites in the same field.
Some time later, after you've gathered your top 10 list of sites, you've come to the conclusion that everyone in the market has absolutely horrible design approaches. Your boss reads through the list of items these sites have in common and tells you to add them to the new site you're building. You proclaim, "…but most of these things shouldn't be on these sites in the first place…", only to then be cut off with a singular argument. "These items are established conventions, since they are so widely used in this market. Obviously they are there for a good reason, so we're going to do it too."
From a logical perspective, idiocy is a very common occurrence, while genius remains a rarity.
Tablets floundered for years trying to establish a place in the market, holding onto senseless conventions. Then, Apple came along, tossed out a lot of these conventions, wrote their own rules, and carved out a place for tablets.
How is it then that people get so trapped in conventions? The answer is quite simple. Popularity.
Humans are social creatures and we strive to belong to the group. Failure to follow what's popular runs the risk of getting left behind as our pack feasts upon mammoth steaks. The lizard brain Seth Godin loves to reference so much is largely to blame for this, but it's our fault for not knowing better.
Rules of convention are hard to spot because they hide in popularity. Always question popular conventions. Refusing to just follow blindly may make you the first to set things on a new course.
There are also times when a rule helps build momentum or even gets things started. A good example of this over the past few years has been the use of grid systems in web design. It has helped foster in a care for the rhythmic alignment of site layouts. These grid systems have provided a set of rules that have pushed a lot of design projects forward in both time and quality.
From the development world the phpDocumentor inline documentation standard has caught on like wildfire and has established a commenting framework followed by many developers. It has arguably helped create more readable codebases all over the place.
Rule-based frameworks should be approached with skeptical optimism. They are usually there to help, but can at times lack the proper attention to solving a problem without causing more.
Rules of Elitism
More often than not, these are the rules we create for the imaginary elite.
We say things like, "The really good artists follow this rule."
Elitist rules have a dangerous habit of forming after we've learned what habits our idols follow.
I consider this set of rules to be both dangerous and a great opportunity. They can be the proverbial 'carrot on the stick', if portrayed in a hopeful light and positively sought after.
However, the reverse is more often true. As we hold these unrealistic ideals in front of ourselves with the assurance that we will never be good enough to be bound by them, we run a campaign of self-deprecation.
Exercise both care and caution when in the company of elite rules.
The Rule Spectrum - States
Rules in a state of being solid are applied often in a particular situation and in different environments. Solid rules are often immediately immovable, and directly applicable.
Liquid Rules are rules that are soft and hard to grasp or explain. Liquid rules often live in a realm of duplicity. They are paradoxically both true and false at the same time, and can shift back and forth depending on the environment they are in.
When a rule is young it is often in a liquid state. However, some rules function best when liquid and remain this way throughout their lifespan of use.
Gaseous Rules tend to be on the way out. They've gotten so fuzzy and hard to follow or understand that they are literally evaporating. Rules reach this stage near the end of their life, and often follow a period of being liquid.
Though there are exceptions, rules tend to follow a lifecycle as follows:
BORN (LIQUID) → ESTABLISHED (SOLID) → ABANDONING (GASEOUS)
One large exception to this is rules that remain liquid. These rules are generally flexible enough so as to survive for long periods of time.
BORN (LIQUID) → ESTABLISHED (LIQUID) → ABANDONING (GASEOUS)
Rules & Perception
Perspective relativity makes things rather difficult when starting to get a grasp on something for the first time.
The state of a rule is relative to the perspective of the situation & environment. Therefore the same rule exists in different states at different times, for different people in different places.
This follows a process that involves what I like to call the Perception Cone.
As time goes by in a situation or field one learns that there are more and more rules that apply to the situation, widening their perspective. The white dots above are all the dots applicable to the situation at hand, discovered during the course of being a part of the situation in question.
However, an interesting thing occurs after a while. Many of the white dots in the "field of view" start to change states. What you'll find is that many of the rules that were solid will turn liquid or even immediately turn to a gaseous state.
You'll end up with something like this after a while.
This is what I call Rule Relativity. People at different points in time with this same situation will have their rules in a radically different state than you may.
The Rule Spectrum - Environments
Rules in Learning
Rule Relativity occurs a lot as one advances in a field. When you first start out as a developer you discover code validation and standards, best practices, etc. But at some point later on you start to realize that there are more rules, and that the more you add on rules the more all of them become really really liquid. A few trustworthy rules stand solid throughout, but they become the exception.
This is what makes it so hard to get started with a new endeavor of learning. Most guides and tutorials are written by more advanced users, not fellow beginners. They are teaching from a perspective you haven't reached yet.
Rules in Teaching
Truly talented subject-matter presenters have a knack for temporarily putting their selves in someone else's perspective to help people progress through the set of rules that applies to the individual's stage of progress.
This very nature of Rule Relativity is what makes teaching anything incredibly difficult. What set of rules do you tell people first that you are invariably going to contradict later?
Dealing with Rule Complexity
If you've stayed with me this far, you've learned a great deal about the states, various species, and environments of rules. However, you are probably wondering, "Well, what now?".
Rules are difficult creatures to wrangle, the above is meant as more of a quick field guide — to provide a syntax with which your brain can digest and process how to approach a rule.
From experience it does make a difference just being aware of the evolution of rules around us. That awareness provides a priceless tool of opportunity and manipulation through which we can better ourselves and our work.
Putting this knowledge into practice is a subject for another post all its own, and one I've already got in the works. So do keep an eye out.
Dear reader, I thank you for your attention.