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Break the Rules!

By Paul Hebert

Published on November 28th, 2022

Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.

Falsely attributed to Pablo Picasso

I recently published an article about the math behind nesting rounded corners. It included some diagrams, an official-sounding equation, and an interactive demo. I got a lot of good feedback about the article, but a few folks reached out with scenarios where the article’s advice made their design worse.

Anthony Hobday shared his thoughts over Twitter. (Asaad Mahmood reached out over email with similar feedback.)

I enjoyed the interactive thingy in @HaulPebert‘s article on nested corners. This screenshot is an interesting situation. When the gap is large enough the inner element shouldn’t have a rounded corner at all. But I find the sharp corner distracting. So I usually round it a little

Anthony Hobday (@hobdaydesign) November 14, 2022

I took a look at their examples, and I agreed with them! So what’s the point of the equation I shared if it sometimes leads to worse designs?

When I was in college, I took a creative writing class. We learned rules to help us write and communicate effectively. At the same time, we were reading novels, short stories, and novels by great authors who routinely broke those rules.

One day one of my classmates asked the professor, “What gives? Why are we learning all these rules if these great authors don’t follow them?” Our professor explained that these rules would help us to improve our writing. But in some situations, our writing would be better if we broke them.

Great writers not only knew the rules, they knew when to break them.

Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.

Falsely attributed to the Dalai Lama

I’m not sure who articulated this idea first. Over time, variations of this quote have been falsely attributed to Pablo Picasso, the Dalai Lama, and others. Regardless of its original author, I think there’s a lot of wisdom in this proverb.

This applies to most creative pursuits, including writing, design, coding, drawing, and even cooking. In design, it applies much more broadly than rounded corners. There are important rules about color theory, typography, layout, grids, and more.

Knowing these rules will help you make quality designs. Knowing when to bend or break these rules sometimes helps you make great and original designs.

I hope my article about nesting rounded corners is helpful when you’re designing. But it’s also important to know when to trust your design intuition over a math equation.

Rules are mostly made to be broken

I think Douglass Macarthur actually said this, but it was part of a longer quote

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