Making_Magic

The Ten Principles for Good Design, Part 1

  • Boards
  • Print
Author Image

The letter I! often talk about Brian Tinsman's love of innovation. This doesn't apply to just his Magic design, but to pretty much everything he gets his hands on. One day Brian was thinking about all the design resources of Wizards of the Coast R&D. Remember, that Magic is but one thing we create here (Dungeons & Dragons and Duel Masters are the two big other products, but there are numerous smaller games created here as well). Was there a way to better synergize all this design talent?

The end result was the bi-weekly meeting of a group Brian called the Game Design Best Practice Team. Every designer in R&D was invited. Each time, a different designer would choose any design-related topic and use the hour meeting to talk about it. Today's column was the topic I chose when I ran my first meeting.

Brain and Braun

My hour was all about the 10 Principles for Good Design as proposed by a man named Dieter Rams. I'll start with where I started that day: who in the world is Dieter Rams?
According to Wikipedia:

Dieter Rams (born May 20, 1932 in Wiesbaden, Hesse) is a German industrial designer closely associated with the consumer products company Braun and the Functionalist school of industrial design.

What does a man who designed consumer electronics have to do with game design? As you will see, a lot more than one might think. To understand the connection between Dieter Rams and myself, let me show you the key connection:


Who is this? This is a man named Jonathan Ive. He too designs consumer electronics products, although for a company that many of you might be more familiar with than Braun—a little company called Apple.

Jonathan Ive is the Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple. More impressive to me than his qualifications, though, are his designs. Perhaps you're familiar with some of them:


What does Jonathan Ive have to do with Dieter Rams? Let's take a look at some of Dieter Rams's work:


Many believe that Dieter Rams is the industrial designer that has had the greatest influence on Jonathan Ive's work. I believe Jonathan Ive to be one of the greatest modern industrial designers, so following this path of influence is of great interest to me. (If you're unfamiliar with my love of Apple, check out my article where I professed it. By the way, for those who care: I did get an iPad the day it came out, and I'm loving it. It is very much, I believe, the direction of the future.)

Wait, wait, wait. I'm a card designer. What does that have to do with industrial design? My answer is "a lot," because I believe that design is design regardless of what is being created. To be a better designer, I have to understand not just Magic design or card design, but the concept of design in general.

Today's column (and the one in two weeks—it's a two-parter) is looking at Dieter Rams's 10 Principles for Good Design and talking about how the ten principles apply to game design and Magic design in specific. If you are truly interested in design, I think today's column is an important one.

Let me start by showing you the list:

Dieter Rams's Ten Principles for Good Design

1) Good design is innovative.
2) Good design makes a product useful.
3) Good design is aesthetic.
4) Good design helps us to understand a product.
5) Good design is unobtrusive.
6) Good design is honest.
7) Good design is durable.
8) Good design is consequent to the last detail.
9) Good design is concerned with the environment.
10) Good design is as little design as possible.

Take a moment to sink it all in. These ten principles carry a lot of weight. When you're ready I'll walk through them one by one.

1) Good design is innovative.

It's hard to discuss this point without first discussing innovation. What exactly makes something innovative?

  1. It has to be new, or at least new to the field in question. When you innovate in design, you bring a new element or elements to the table.
  2. It has to bring about positive change. It's not enough for something to just be new. The new thing has to change the design process in a way that moves the design forward.
  3. It has to add value. That is, the change has to add something to the design that did not exist prior to its introduction.
  4. It often has a negative or destructive effect. Most often when something is added, something else is taken away.
  5. It tends to add risk. Change always comes at a cost.

The point I think Rams was trying to make here is that design is about moving forward. At each step you have to be willing to challenge what you know and examine potential ways to improve the design. Good design involves embracing change, when necessary, and being willing to accept risk. I will make the important distinction that good design is innovation, but innovation isn't enough for good design.


When you apply this to Magic, what it is saying is that Magic design must keep moving forward. Each new design has to think about its cards and mechanics and themes in the context of not just what came before, but what can be done now. Does modern design technology allow us to approach things from a new vantage point? If so, how can we make changes that advance the game without pulling it away from the core of its essence?

I believe every Magic set needs to innovate in several ways:

  1. Every new set should do something that hasn't been done before. This doesn't necessarily have to be as big as a new keyword mechanic, but more often than not it will be.
  2. Every new set should bring back something from the past and present it in a new light. Sometimes this will mean further evolving it, but not always.
  3. Every new set should find ways to add new elements to old ideas. Another way to think of this is that every new set should give you new cards to add to your old decks.
  4. Every set should make players have to shift their thinking about the game in some way.
  5. Every set should create a moment that is uniquely its own. What I mean by this is that in design I'm always on the lookout for the moment when you realize that this environment has its own feel. With Zendikar, it came the first time I found myself hoping to draw a land rather than a spell. I had been in the opposite situations a large number of times, and to see the situation reversed made me realize that the set was hitting on something cool.

I believe that if a set can accomplish these five tasks, it is bringing innovation to the design.

2) Good design makes a product useful.

Often when I'm at the bathroom of a fast food restaurant, I find myself forced to dry my hands with a hand dryer. It always has some sign that explains the many reasons it's superior to a roll of paper towels: it's better for the environment, it doesn't create waste, it's more hygienic. My response has always been, "If only it dried my hands!"

In design, form does, in fact, have to follow function. When design gets in the way of the consumer being able to use the product effectively, it is failing. This point stresses that design is supposed to work with the product and not against it.


To apply this to game design, you simply have to define what the function of a game is. While there are numerous answers, I'll stick with my favorite: a game's function is to be fun. Yes, it should stimulate the mind, it should enable socialization, it should test the player—it should do all sorts of things, but in the end, if the players aren't enjoying themselves, nothing else matters.

I often ask my Magic designers to explain to me why a particular card or mechanic or set will be fun for the players. If they can't explain to me what is fun about it, I tell them to "find the fun" or scrap it. Too often a designer can get lost in the intricacies of making a card work that they lose sight of why they're making the card in the first place.

I often talk about the lesson I learned from Odyssey. In the design, I turned the concept of card advantage on its ear making it the correct play much of the time to throw away your hand to activate an ability you didn't even care about. The problem is that throwing away your hand isn't fun. Players want to play their cards. It didn't matter if I could make them understand strategically why they might want to do it. If I can't get them to want to do it, I, as a designer, have failed.

3) Good design is aesthetic.

Aethetics is another topic I touch upon from time to time as it's such an important part of design. For a quick refresher, click this link to my a Zen and the Art of Cycle Maintenance. In it, I explain the basics of aesthetics. The short version for those who don't want to hit the link is this: When perceiving things, humans care a great amount about if the object in question "feels right." Certain qualities create comfort, while others create discomfort.

The role of aesthetics is understanding what generates a positive response from people. The science of aesthetics has told us that these qualities are much more objective than one might assume. Biologically, humans are wired to crave certain things: balance, structure, completion, etc. Designers have to understand aesthetics because it has a huge impact on how their designs are received and perceived.


A big part of any art is learning the rules of that art. Painters have to understand perspective, photographers have to understand light, writers have to understand story structure. Most of these rules come from the lessons of aesthetics. What does a painting or a photograph or a story have to do to "feel right" to the audience?

Game design is no different. Games have to "feel right." For Magic, this means that we have to be conscious of many factors that might not seem important on the surface. This includes things like being careful how much we use a particular mechanic and where we put it in color and rarity. It also includes what abilities we put together. Designers have to be very conscious about the overall feel of a card as they add or subtract elements.

Aesthetics also makes us very careful about how we use different elements on a card. The best example of this would be our use of numbers. We are very aware what numbers appear on a card and when those numbers feel as if they want to have relevance to one another. For example, if a creature deals 3 damage when it enters the battlefield, we strongly push towards making the creature have a power of 3, as we want to create the feel that the creature is "attacking" as it enters play.

Often when several numbers on the card match we push to line up other numbers as well. Several weeks ago, I explained how we were very careful about what power/toughness combinations we used on the levelers to make their progression feel right. All of these things might seem small in a vacuum but the combined effect of caring about all these small things is that the sets have the right feel.

4) Good design helps us to understand a product.

One of the things I love about Apple's design is that things tend to work the way you think they would work. The designers at Apple take great care to match expectation. This concept is so important to design that I've nicknamed it; I call it the Paperclip Effect. The first time you are shown a paper clip, it feels natural. So natural, in fact, that it becomes hard to imagine any other way to temporarily hold multiple pieces of paper together. That's the sign of clean design. It so encompasses its purpose that it eclipses the idea that it is but one way to do it. It feels like the way, not a way.

Rams is also talking, I believe, about the importance of a design serving as instruction. The object needs to be designed such that its very form explains how it is used. It's easy to think of design solely as cosmetic, to create the prettiest version of whatever it's trying to be. With this principle, Rams is reminding the designer that they trade in information just as much as image.

This is especially important in Magic because of the limitations of trading card games. The designer does not control in what order the player experiences the game. This means that great care has to be taken to communicate what is going on. The biggest way this is accomplished is by use of common cards. These cards are the backbone of the set, because they will exist in the largest volume. If the designer wants to send a message about what the set is about, that message has to live in common to ensure that it will be seen. As I often say, if your theme isn't in common, it isn't your theme.


Good Magic design has to convey information. This is done in two ways. First is the card-by-card information. Each card has numerous places to provide information: the rules text, the card type line, the power/toughness, the title, the art, the flavor text, etc. The designer has to understand when each part can and should be used.

Next are the tools used to communicate information about the set: rarity, color, cycles, reflections, etc. Part of conveying things about your set is setting up parallel cards that reinforce your themes. Remember that a player has five times more chance to see a traditional five-color cycle than a single card.

A designer has to always be conscious not just of what the product is, but of what its design says as an introduction. When someone sees your product for the first time, it will be up to your product to convey your message.

5) Good design is unobtrusive.

During the first few years I was in Hollywood, I worked as a runner. (You can read all about my runner days in my column Tales of a Runner.) Also called a production assistant or a "go-fer" (as in"go fer" this and "go fer" that), a runner is the lowest person on the Hollywood food chain. You basically do whatever errands you are told to do.

One of my jobs was as a runner on the show Anything but Love starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Richard Lewis. One day I was called to the office of one of the producers. It was his job to oversee the runners. He called me in and told me to take a seat. He explained that there had been some complaints about me. Was I not doing my job efficiently? No, I was doing a good job. Was I failing to perform some task? No, I was doing everything asked of me. Had I done something I wasn't supposed to do? No, I hadn't stepped out of bounds. Then what was I doing wrong? The problem, he said, was that I was too visible.


Too visible? What did that mean? He explained that part of a runner's job was to be as low-key as possible. A runner was not supposed to be noticed. I had too much personality. I was getting noticed. I wasn't unobtrusive.

At the time I was pretty upset. The whole reason I took the low-level runner job was to work my way up. I was trying to get noticed. It wasn't until many years later that I began to understand what he was saying. To be an effective runner, I had to fulfill all requirements of the job. An important one was that I wasn't supposed to pull focus. I was supposed to do my job without causing any disruption. I was supposed to be invisible, because my job in the big picture was a supporting one.

It's very easy to see the job from my perspective. I was using it to try and move on to something else. The harder part is to see it from the producer's perspective. He had a need that had to be filled. I wasn't giving him everything he needed. Instead of fitting into the organization, I was trying to stand out. It was problematic.

Let's apply this to Magic design. The role of any individual card is to serve the needs of the set. The card's first duty is to the set, not to itself. One of the hardest things for designers to do is to pull the awesome card that isn't quite doing what it's supposed to be doing. The problem is that the card is less important than the set. If the card pulls focus, it disrupts the set. A designer's job, much like that producer, is to look at the system as a whole. Yes, it's disruptive from that card's perspective, but the design has a purpose much larger than an individual card's need.

I think Rams's major point here is that all the elements have to serve the design first and foremost and no other. The second any one element puts itself above the design as a whole, it jeopardizes the design. This is true in making lamps or record players, and it's true in making Magic cards.

Gimme Five

That's the first five of Rams's ten principles of good design as they apply to Magic. Join me in two weeks for part 2. (Next week is a theme week.) I'm curious if you like this style of column. Would you like me to write another one the next time it's my turn to present? I'm interested to hear what you all think (both of my question and of Rams's principles). Make a comment in the thread, drop me an email, or find me on Twitter (@maro254).

Join me next week when I'll level with you all.

Until then, may you see your own design in Rams's principles.

  • Planeswalker Points
  • Facebook Twitter
  • Gatherer: The Magic Card Database
  • Forums: Connect with the Magic Community
  • Magic Locator