Book review: Designing the Invisible

A Practical Guide to Designing the Invisible by Robert Mills is a compact, useful primer for web design beginners with refresher lessons for the more experienced designer. The book has five sections exploring:

  • Invisible communication
  • Wayfinding
  • Importance and meaning of colour
  • Tone of voice
  • Storytelling

Firstly, this book isn’t about HTML, CSS or creating graphics. It’s not a practical book to have open by your computer. What it does is get you thinking, in depth, about the details in a design which positively affect your web experience. The detail could be small, consistent icons. It could be the subtle menu cues that make a complex structure easier to navigate. It could be the tone of voice helping you perceive the website owner’s personality.

Robert has a friendly, open writing style and presents these topics simply and clearly. While many web design books cover the connotations of colour, I was pleased to see a large chunk of the book covering language, tone of voice and storytelling. That’s why I bought the book. It’s good to see language and content explored in the context of web design. I hope this book goes some way in encouraging new web designers to consider content, as well as learning graphic design, markup and programming.

Bugbear alert: content isn’t that ‘weird wordy stuff’ dropped into placeholders in a design. Content can fundamentally change the meaning or effectiveness of a design, so give the content as much thought as the design (if not more). One passage chimed with my experience in writing web content:

The best way to tell an immersive story and connect with your audience is by understanding them and knowing what their goals are […] put yourself in someone else’s position to experience what a situation is like for them. If you do this through use cases and personas, you’ll understand your audience much better. The more you understand your audience, the easier it will be to tell a story that engages them.

Robert Mills, Designing the Invisible

If you can do this – though I suspect we’d all like more time to do so – you have a solid foundation to start writing. When things get difficult, you have this foundation to refer to. For those with some web design experience, I think the sections on icons, wayfinding and colour palettes will be familiar, while they may benefit from the other sections. This book really is for beginners (this is made clear on the back cover). That’s the good stuff.

On the downside, this book is full of typos. So many, in fact, they distracted me from what Robert was saying, affecting my enjoyment of the book. Hmm, like a pedant, I wrote corrections in the margins and I’ve listed the typos below.

Also, the binding is too tight and the page content set too close to the spine, with generous margins on the outer edges of the page. While this looks elegant (the paper and print quality are great) you need superhuman strength to hold the book open with one hand and still be able to read the full width of a paragraph. Not a book you can easily read while eating a sandwich on your lunch break. I had to wrench the book open flat and crack the spine to read it comfortably. Definitely a case of form over function.

Overall, I found Designing the Invisible a refreshingly good read, particularly the chapters on wayfinding, language and storytelling. At £29 for the printed book though, it’s a shame that attention to detail in production wasn’t up to the same level as the content.

Errata

Page 22, penultimate paragraph: “used consistency throughout” should read “used consistently throughout”

Page 43, last line: “and so is has significance” should read “and so has significance”

Page 44, penultimate paragraph, first line: “the above sign represents the hazard of kangaroos” – there’s no kangaroo danger sign on the page.

Page 55, last paragraph under “Telling a three-act-story”:  “when they arrives at their destination” should read “when they arrive at their destination”

Page 61, paragraph beneath Apple screenshot, first line: “The iPod sub-menu for shows” should read “The iPod sub-menu shows”

Page 89: there’s a full stop on the heading “Hospitals and surgeries.”

Page 89, second paragraph, first line: “Doctor’s surgeries often have green or blue walls” should read “Doctors’ surgeries often have green or blue walls”

Page 93, first paragraph, third line: “choosing colours just because they looks good” should read “choosing colours just because they look good”

Pages 105 and 106: you have “BBC homepage” and “BBC Homepage”

Page 106, second paragraph, second line: “stereotypically girl’s colours” should read “stereotypically girls’ colours”

Page 111, first paragraph, third line: “culture dependant” should read “culture dependent”

Page 115, paragraph in green section, third line: “the same these association” should read “the same association”

Page 117, second paragraph, second line: “make people appear slimmer)” should read “make people appear slimmer.)”

Page 129, second paragraph, second line: “peopledon’t think about it” should read “people don’t think about it”

Page 129, last paragraph: “If you challenge peoples perspective” should read “If you challenge people’s perspective”

Page 136, penultimate paragraph, first line: “talk to with all sorts” should read “talk to all sorts” or “talk with all sorts”

Page 136, last paragraph, third line: “you can you make” should read “you can make”

Page 175, first paragraph, second line: “simply ‘noise’.Like film” should read “simply ‘noise’. Like film”

Page 182, last paragraph, second line: “They provides the structure” should read “They provide the structure”

Page 185, second paragraph, second line: “values those brands represents” should read “values those brands represent”

Page 188, first paragraph under “Telling a story”, third line: “mission statements your to” should read “mission statements to your

Page 189, last paragraph, second line: “for our clients customers” should read “for our clients’ customers”

Page 189, last paragraph, third and fourth lines: “We’re craftsman in every sense” should read “We’re craftsmen in every sense”

Page 198, first paragraph, fourth line: “we thrive on brining” should read “we thrive on bringing”