Product Guidance
March 8, 2021

Sometimes it's better to be coherent than consistent.

Open Reference

In the design world, there is are principles that you use to design things. 

One of those principles is consistency. 

The idea is that if everything in your experience is consistent, then it will be easier to use. It's even in Apple's human interface guidelines. 

The problem is that sometimes creatives and leaders forget why these principles exist. 

The point of consistency in design is that it allows people to know what to expect.

There are times, however, when purely being consistent does not get the result you want. 

It makes me think of Emerson's essay Self-Reliance, he writes: 

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood."

When consistency fails to make a design clearer, I have another principle; it's called coherency.

Coherent means something is clear and intelligible; it makes sense and fits in the whole. It's a quality we want from consistency. Having principles that compete or overlay helps us see the nuance of our work. 

In life, sometimes we get stuck in that trap of trying to be consistent as a principle. We may think that consistency in our ideology makes us good or strong. But if consistency replaces the real thing that we care about (being good, or strong, or compassionate), then it's time to let go of consistency, change our minds, change our designs, and embrace what makes sense context we are in.

Online, where our words are often taken as a permanent record rather than the working out of ideas, it can be hard to cast aside consistency.

Inconsistency in design and life creates a fear of being misunderstood; I'll offer up "coherence" as a kind of escape hatch principle that can be called upon by my fellow designers.

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