The User Interface Design & Engineering Handbook – Part I (First Principles)

June 13th, 2011

A conversation I’ve had quite a few times, with quite a few people, is the one about what I’ve read and what would I recommend reading, where User Interface is concerned. So, in order to make my own life easier, and also to straighten out my thoughts on the matter once and for all, I’m going to finally put it all down here for your edification (and possible amusement).

I’m a first principles kind of guy, so the place I think one should start is by reading The Elements of Typographic Style. Now, on the face of it, a book about typography probably seems like the last place you should be looking for guidance when you design your super-modern HTML5/Tablet app, right?

Wrong — because when you ignore typography, you ignore hundreds, if not thousands of years of UI thinking at your own peril. There’s some fascinating stuff here when you really dig into it. There are a few major topics that you will run into over-and-over when dealing with interaction design, and design in general that are touched-upon by this topic, so there’s no point in wasting mental cycles trying to piece it together yourself when some tired old monks figured it out for you long ago.

The most important of those topics is grounded in the relationship between math, spirituality and our attempts to make sense of the uncanny patterns we see in the world through the use of logic (it sounds heavier than it is, so stay with me). Simply put, the history of the user interface goes back far beyond the Renaissance, back to Egypt, all the while happening in parallel in ancient China, when religious scribes first began to consider the relationships between text and its medium as part of an entire system that started with divinity at one end and the reader at the other, where the written word was a conduit of power. In such a system, every piece matters, and what results is a rationalized system for dealing not just with aesthetics, but with information as well.

In effect, these ancient texts were the earliest pieces of information that were engineered. The use of the golden ratio in design is a powerful influence that lives with us today, and we can trace its use absolutely. Now, it’s probably a step too far to say that everything derives from here (actually, it’s a few steps too far, just ask Plato), but it’s at the root, in a significant way, and there are at least two important lessons to be learned here.

The first is the simplest — study the canons and know them. Understand that there are mathematical expressions for whatever intuitions you have about spacing and relationships in your design, whether you’re working in print, or designing for the web or some other device. Setting up your design’s grid in consideration of these rules can take you far.

The second  thing is probably a bit more complex. Whatever your own spiritual proclivities may be, religion and science were inextricable to the guys that first formulated these rules — they were equally the search for truth. And, that search for truth was led by strong intuitions about the natural world, our relationship to and place in it. Math, for these seekers of knowledge provided the hints to a system that could once and for all lead to undeniable, intrinsic truths about the universe. The idea that the very page and its proportions must themselves convey the same truths writ upon them, creating a perfect conduit between man and divinity is not very far from the intuitions that drives what modern designers do.

The intuition that systemization, universality and truth are intertwined is beneath every interface design endeavour. We are attempting to reveal some intrinsic truth about a piece of information. That truth may be absolute, or it may be reflected through the prism of humanity, or a certain culture, but whatever the case, we are grasping at some un-named, shared perspective and attempting to bridge the gap between those two by wrangling whatever device-or-medium might be our current vessel into some form of an articulatable system.

Doubtless there are other lessons, but this is a good place to start. So, read the book. If you’re an engineer, take the extra time to look at the font/history stuff in there too. It will help you communicate better with your designer. If you’re a designer, do some more reading on the math end (even if you think you already know everything about the golden ratio, you little smarty-pants).


  • The Foreword & Historical Synopsis
  • Chapter 1
  • Chapter 8

The rest makes for great bed-time reading, if you’re not really into typography.

And whatever you do, try not to think about it too much. Or do.


Bonus! Here’s an older (second) edition on Scribd.

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