The dictionary is such a ubiquitous object that few people stop to consider its form and function and the design choices that went into its creation. It is, however, a highly designed book, including many special features that are only applicable to the dictionary’s function. Looking at the dictionary as a designer, I break it down into the choices that were made that led to its form, material, aesthetics and other characteristics.
It’s important to note that the fact that these “choices” were made does not mean they were designed or made intentionally. Many designed objects retain forms or features that are vestigial to previous functions, or maintain particular characteristics as a result of unintentioned decisions on the part of some other designer. When evaluating an object as a designer, however, the intention and nature by which these came to be is much less important than the fact that they are represented in the object itself.
The first thing I notice about the dictionary is its function. A dictionary is meant to hold words. Well, a lot of words. Its size and shape are descendants of this purpose, as is many of its materials. Since it must hold so many words, it must be large enough to accommodate them, but small enough to make it functional as a useable book. Usable books must usually be much smaller than the user, and lightweight enough to move around, and most dictionaries fit this bill (although the OED often has its own designed accoutrements such as reading stands and lazy susans). The dictionary must sometimes be durable, and last for many years. The design choice and characteristic associated with this is a hard cover, resistant to wear and mutilation.
To hold all the words, the fonts inside the dictionary are specially selected to be readable at a very small size, and to have enough variation to provide for all the functions that are needed – bold, italic, underlined, etc. Pictures are specially placed to be associated with the definition, and must be general enough to explain the definition without confusing the reader. The paper selected for the dictionary is typically very thin, but relatively durable, reducing weight and increasing readability with particular qualities.
The layout of the page can also be evaluated based on design choices. The top folio has the first and the last word defined on the page, as well as the page number. This gives the reader easy access. The font here is a little larger than the rest of the page, defining this section. The lower right hand corner may contain a guide to pronunciation or a place marker or some other feature to serve the reader. These decisions were intentional, and perhaps arrived at through a series of iterations. The designer would next ask herself: what could change? Perhaps the particular designer has a hard time with the alphabet, and it would be helpful to print the alphabet on the bottom of every page for easy alphabetical reference. Any number of features could be relevant to this situation.
Finally, the dictionary features several other additions that make it unique in its design choices. The dictionary features cut outs for flipping to the particular letter of your choice. This was a design choice that was intentional, perhaps after many years of struggling to turn to the correct section in a dictionary many thousands of pages long. The designer might consider how the user knows if the tab flips to the middle, end or beginning of that particular section. The designer would ask if there was a way to modify this design to make it clear where in the section one would be flipping to, and then think about solutions that would be applicable to future iterations of the dictionary.
By breaking down each characteristic of the dictionary, it becomes a series of choices that the designer can evaluate for effectiveness and for future evaluation. The designer then takes this information and responds with more creative solutions, building on observation and evaluation.
This division of observation and evaluation can be applied to all objects, environments and designed systems. Breaking down the individual choices gives the observer the opportunity to evaluate each on its own merits, and to reassemble them into a coherent design solution in context.