Design Patterns: When to Use and When to Break the Rules

As a proponent of design patterns, it was interesting to read Design Patterns: When Breaking The Rules Is OK in Smashing Magazine recently, in which the author highlighted the potential inadequacies of design patterns.

I like design patterns primarily because they enable busy teams to make decisions by helping to remove personal opinion and subjectivity from the process.

They also enable people like myself (who are squarely in the middle of the ‘web design pack’) to benefit from the collective wisdom of others, enabling me to guide the design of more usable interfaces.

This is part of the reason I created my Elements of Design site — to provide inspiration for the design of common UI elements, but also to help resolve discussions on the right approach to take (“I know, let’s see what everyone else does”).

Given my reliance on them, it’s fascinating to see where design patterns come up short. For example, the article introduces a concept that is new to me, of the “local maximum”:

The local maximum is a point at which you’ve hit the limit of the current design… It is as effective as it’s ever going to be in its current incarnation. Even if you make 100 tweaks, you can only get so much improvement; it is as effective as it’s ever going to be on its current structural foundation.

I see the “local maximum” in effect when it comes to the design of corporate websites, particularly the many (thousands) that feature a large banner slider at the top. There are many slight variations on this approach, but is this really the best design solution for this type of website?

Certainly, some sites such as Google Ventures are breaking the mold to a degree, but for the most part, so many of these types of sites follow the same formula.

It’s also interesting to see how design patterns develop, especially with the rise of mobile and its implications for web design in general.

In a previous post I looked at how design patterns were emerging for icon use in navigation, and right now we are debating in our team the right icon to represent a phone number — should it be an iPhone, a traditional phone, or an older style mobile phone?

Keeping on the topic of emerging design patterns, the use of the ellipsis as an icon for more options seems to be making its way from mobile app use into regular web design.

And it’s hard to ignore the impact of Pinterest on home page design for a wide range of sites.

On the subject of when to follow and when to break design patterns, it’s not too surprising that the conclusion of the Smashing Magazine article is to use design patterns when they are relevant, but to keep an open mind in case there is a better way to solve the design problem in question.

In other words, “it depends.”

5 thoughts to “Design Patterns: When to Use and When to Break the Rules”

  1. Know your website client and their audiences to best determine when design patterns should conform or diverge to offer the best relevance.

  2. When it comes to design patterns there are definitely times when you need to break the rules to get the result you want.

  3. Nice post ! Knowing the design patterns is certainly an important step. One way to get used to this sort of thing is to study applications of design patterns, not just the patterns. Seeing many different applications of one pattern can help you over time to get better at mapping a task onto a pattern.

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