Consistency builds recognition

Guiding our way to a small lake located at 1493 m above sea-level, surrounded by mountains, were a lot of direction signs. But almost every single one was designed differently. Navigating wasn’t a problem for us, since we were quite familiar with the area. Yet the direction signs almost had a reverse effect on aiding orienting ourselves, bringing us to a halt every time a different-looking sign appeared, having to reconfigure our eyes and adjusting to the newly presented forms.

It was a weird learning experience: Since every signpost was unlike the previous, it was hard to identify a design pattern. The experience felt unorganised, inconsistent and, in a way, dubious. Was there something missing? Was this a paper-chase?

If presented with any pattern, it’s relatively easy to identify a deviation (for example a dot-pattern with an irregularly offset point). It’s easy to identify a problem, a missing link. The design itself tells you if it’s correct or not. The same is applicable to conceptual patterns, in this case that of an orientation interface and system.

This led me to the realisation that consistency builds recognition, and recognition builds trust. Consistency is a fundamental tool in the design process, be it for emotional design (corporate communications, e.g., branding and advertisement) or informational design (wayfinding, data-mapping, layouting, etc.). It’s a big part of what makes things ostensibly feel more natural and accessible. By creating a system that builds on consistency, the results inevitably will reflect its inherent qualities and characteristics.

In retrospect, I think that what made this situation stand out for me was this very observable contrast of the powers of recognition at work. The usual and preferred way of triggering recognition by design is a recognition happening on a subconscious level – making something feel familiar, controllable and therefore non-challenging. And while repeatedly facing these varying designs, this naturalised recognition-mechanism was subverted and collapsed on itself, making me consciously recognise this set up systematic illusion.

“Good designs oscillate between hiding and revealing themselves. Interfaces should oscillate in a controlled way between states of transparency and reflectivity.” [1] The design ought to offer a system that signals surety through consistency, while at the same time inviting personal reflection from the viewer-users. By being “aware of the medium in order to understand the experience that it is staging […]” [1], the interacting public will gain a greater insight of their current condition, as well as a heightened critical independence towards subliminal messaging.

For designers, this means producing work that defeats intrinsic attempts to subvert its own visual government and stimulates evaluative self-reliance.