Books : reviews

David Kadavy.
Design for Hackers: reverse-engineering beauty.
Wiley. 2011

rating : 4 : passes the time
review : 16 October 2013

Why did Monet never use the color black in his paintings? Why is the golden ratio not all its cracked up to be? Why is Comic Sans such a hated font?

It’s amazing what you can learn about great web design by asking questions like these. Award-winning designer David Kadavy uses this “reverse-engineering” process in Design for Hackers to deconstruct classical design principles and techniques for web designers. Using an eclectic array of reverse-engineered examples, ranging from Twitter’s latest redesign, to Target’s red shopping carts, and ancient graffiti from the walls of Pompeii, he explains:

  • Color theory: How can you enliven your designs by understanding how colors interact?
  • Proportion and geometry: How can you establish a grid that is suitable for the device on which your design will be displayed?
  • Size and scale: How can you create clean design just by choosing the right type sizes?
  • White space: How can you use it elegantly to communicate clearly?
  • Composition and design principles: How can you use them to make your designs more compelling?
  • Typographic etiquette: What tiny typographic details can make a huge difference in what you’re communicating?

The premise of this book is that great design can be learned only by studying great design. So Kadavy takes us on a guided tour of fonts and websites, showing us the good, and picking apart why they are good, or “reverse engineering the beauty”.

There is some good stuff in here, about use of fonts, proportion, colour, alignment, and white space. I learned some things, and I hope to use them in the future.

Some of the claims seem rather unsubstantiated to me, however. For the most part, Kadavy claims some piece of design is beautiful, then picks it apart to expose the features that make it beautiful. But where is the evidence that these are the relevant features? We need to investigate alternatives that don’t use the features, or don’t use them so well, and see that the result is not beautiful. Otherwise it is all so many “Just So” stories.

The few places where he does do the “compare and contrast” of the good and the not so good are the parts I found most illuminating and useful. The lovingly detailed history of typefaces, not so much.