In our last post we talked about sheet of paper design, what it is, what it looks like, and why people like it.
We left an unanswered question that I'd like to address now... Does 37signals have a copyright on sheet of paper design? Of course we know the answer is either a 2, 3, or 5 letter word... but that wouldn't make much a blog post, now would it? :-)
When I want to start a new sheet of paper design here is what I usually start with:
It's pretty simple. Of course there is a certain proportion to it. Be it 66/33 or 60/40 or 70/30... I don't think it matters and I don't think there is a "golden" number. I have no idea the exact proportion 37signals uses. I tend to use what feels right over time. Pastie, for example, has a wider content area because the entire app is driven by one purpose: just pasting and viewing code.
So in review we have a white box in the middle of a grey background roughly proportioned to 2/3 the total width, that's it. A one or two element layout (depending how you count the background).
Can 37signals really copyright such a simple design? I find the very idea ridiculous - and I'm not alone. If 37signals can copyright that then we're screwed. So is every one of the sites I mention and actually most of the internet if such a simple design can be legally protected by one company exclusively.
But maybe they are trying to claim copyright on a bit more than sheet of paper design itself, so lets continue...
Adding a header
Let's pair any one of the tabbed headers from our previous discussion with this simple one element sheet of paper design... Let's remember we still haven't added any actual content or even any sidebar content that would differentiate our app from another other web app... nada... we just have a white box, a grey background, and a tabbed header design...
Hold up, lets not even pair it with one of those tab heavy headers. Lets pair it with a simple black header with links (think Pastie or Beast):
So what do we have below? We have something that surely bares a resemblance to a 37signals web app. We now have 2 or 3 design elements on the page. Can we copyright it yet?
Placing the content...
I'm not sure it really matters what you put in the white or grey areas at this point... maybe 37signals would be a little less upset if we put a picture of Mickey Mouse in the white and Miney Mouse in the grey... but if you continue to use a clean, simple design there are going to be similarities to 37signals... The sheet of paper layout itself (for better or worse) combined with well-known usability guidelines constrains your choices about the placement of content, help, utility links and buttons...
Sometimes you're forced to make the same design choices as 37signals. Yes, forced. Let me just give some examples to illustrate this.
It's important. Where do we place it? What about top center of the content area (old Basecamp), or top left (new Highrise).. what about top sidebar (Campfire)... Fuck, I can't even put the title on the page without "stealing" from a 37signals design.
Page subtitle, if we have one
It should probably go near the title... perhaps under it (Highrise)... or beside it.. (Basecamp header) Thwarted again.
Links or buttons to alter content (edit, delete)
Well, they should probably be near the title of the content... right beside it (old Backpack todo edit links), top right of content area (Highrise), above it, beneath it (old Basecamp I think), top sidebar, bottom of content (Basecamp Messages, expanded view)... top sidebar is a bit awkward to me, but I'm trying to think hard here.
I suppose I could hide the delete button unless someone is editing the content (old Basecamp)... or not (new Basecamp). Can't win.
Primary content and help/peripheral content
I think this is pretty obvious. Primary content on the left (the wide page area), peripheral content on the right... this is pretty standard with two column designs. Maybe we could put the sidebar on the left (old Basecamp projects list)... Nah, bad idea.
Links or buttons to add new content or perform other key tasks
We're talking about the key task on a page (if any)... Like "Add a new pet" on the page that lists pets... We could put the links under the title (old Basecamp project overview), to the right of the title (new Basecamp), maybe at the top of the sidebar (Highrise), maybe even above the title, though that's a bit weird. I could use a link (new Basecamp, project overview) or I could use a button (Highrise, new Basecamp, etc)...
And what if my button reads like a sentence "Add a new pet"... where have I seen that before... hint: Apple's own software and Human Interface Guidelines.
Starting to see a pattern yet?
Usability Guidelines, Basic Design Principals and Common Sense
When you start with a sheet of paper design 37signals seems to think everything that follows results from your ulterior motive to steal their design. They are flat out wrong. The sheet of paper layout itself, usability, basic design principals and common sense guide a good designer, just like they guided 37signals.
Take someone with some common sense, mix in a good knowledge of usability and some experience with design and the web in general... and you will find a person making a lot of the same decisions regarding placement, proportion, contrast, etc that 37signals has made.
Sure you can go the Lighthouse route (no offense intended)... add more color, more boxes, more curves, more "fun"... do extra things to try and look less like 37signals (build a thermos instead of a cup). But if you just love that clean, simple look, there isn't a lot you can do.
So, does 37signals have a copyright on sheet of paper design...
.. and do they have a copyright on the basic decisions, placements and proportions that follow from it... in other words, does 37signals have a copyright on usability guidelines, basic design principals and common sense?
God, I hope not.
Tune in next time and we'll talk about copyright law itself, patents, and more...