Tag Archives: design principles

Universal design

22 Nov

Today I encountered an interesting statement: “Good design is universal.”

I found that I both strongly agreed and strongly disagreed with this assertion which, as you can imagine, was a confusing frame of mind. On the one hand, designers have a skill set that they should be able to apply to any game, regardless of platform or target audience. On the other hand, I would never feel comfortable designing a game for, say, 5-year old girls without doing extensive research on what makes young girls tick.

How can good design be both universal and not universal at the same time? After rolling this around in my brain for a while (sometimes I can’t get these things out of my head) I hit upon a distinction that felt right. Design principles are universal. These principles are grounded in human psychology and the form of games as a media, and can and should be applied or at least considered in the design of every game. Concepts like “the rules of a game should be internally consistent” are universal because they apply to the design of any and all games.

However, design does not take place in a vacuum.  Design is a service industry – we create products for specific people, in particular places, in our precise moment in history.  Good design requires an understanding of the context.  Just as it’s important to understand the universal design principles, it’s equally important to understand the unique facets of the player group that you’re designing for. Let’s take an example from visual design. My background is in art so I have a pretty solid understanding of color theory; I’m familiar with the different types of color schemes, and how the temperature and value of a color can cause it to pop forward or recede. I understand the universal principles of color theory. When it comes to designing, say, a print advertisement for a company in India, this simply isn’t enough. I also need to understand the context of this design task.  For example, it would be particularly relevant in this case to know that the color white is frequently worn to funerals in some Eastern cultures like India. My knowledge of design principles may tell me that white would be the perfect color for this project but, given my specific knowledge of the context of the Indian culture, I may need to think twice about that.

My point is this – design is both universal and not universal. It is crucial to understand the universal principles of design, but it is equally important to always remember the context – the specific needs and qualities of your target audience.  It is our job as game designers to produce an amazing gameplay experience, but that experience is not possible without a player. When we forget that player, we are not holding up our end of the deal, and can’t expect to be be able to design for target populations that are different from ourselves.