June 26, 2023

If it looks right, it is right

I just moved into a new apartment.

I was in my old place for nearly a decade, so moving felt particularly weird for me. I spent years getting to know all the idiosyncrasies of that place: the way the door shuttered from the air pressure change every time somebody entered the building or how the shower temperature operated in reverse. Standard New York City fare.

As I’ve been going about measuring, laying out, and freshening up this new place, I’ve been noticing a host of new oddities here. Among them, there’s a light fixture that isn’t quite centered and an archway that’s a little off-kilter. In these pre-war apartments, once you bust out the measuring tape, nothing is ever exactly right.

All this reminds me of one of my favorite design rules: if it looks right, it is right.

It doesn’t matter if the room’s perfectly aligned as long as it feels like it is. In design, communication, and creativity as a whole, we’re always in the business of perception and experience, not mathematics and exactitude.

The ancient Greeks knew this when they designed the Parthenon. To correct for optical illusions, the building’s base arches upwards by a few centimeters. The columns on that base appear straight but actually taper a wee bit towards the top to keep them looking that way – and the ones on the corners are also a tad bigger than the rest.

On a more modest scale, we can see this at play on our own walls. Look at a nearby picture frame: most matted pictures have slightly thicker spacing on the bottom side to avoid the perception of the image “falling” down the frame. This same principle is at play in UI design – most elements, including many on this page, have a slightly larger bottom padding than that on the top or sides.

Don’t worry so much about the centimeters or the pixels. Worry instead about how it looks when you squint at it, when you see it again tomorrow morning, and most of all, when you use it in the real world. That’s what matters.

If these buildings or boxes were precisely right, they wouldn’t actually feel right. We’re imperfect creatures, and as a result, we have to let in a little bit of imperfect weirdness into our work.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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