What is a Design Language?

So, what is a design language? Design languages exist all around us, but one could be forgiven for not paying them much notice—some design languages fit so cleanly into our lives that they don’t bear further inspection. They make roads easier to drive on, kitchen utensils easier to use, and technology more intuitive.

In essence, a design language is a standard way to communicate a set of concepts so that people don’t have to re-learn things over and over. Every time you tap on a button on a website and see the button change color to signal that you ‘clicked’ it, you’re interfacing with a design language. This ‘click color’ is an arbitrary visual indicator—in an alternate reality, maybe you would have to draw a circle around certain buttons in order to interact with them. However, that would make technology so much more confusing, since you would have to try multiple strategies (drawing circles, tapping, swiping, etc.) around a button every time you encounter a new one. In the early days of the GUI, companies had many different design languages, and each platform did things differently. Then, Apple and few others settled on the metaphors of ‘windows’ and ‘icons’, and suddenly even children could learn to use computers.

Design Languages We Take For Granted

Most design languages are so intuitive that we take for granted that they exist. But in cases where we don’t have strong design guidelines (e.g. restaurant menus and door handles), we're almost constantly frustrated.

Lingua Franca is our attempt to build a comprehensive design language for AI, a set of tools and techniques that can standardize and improve upon how we interface with machine learning technology, hopefully empowering us in the process. This is a daunting challenge, given that AI encompasses all kinds of products, from voice assistants, to autonomous vehicles, to the product recommendations on web stores. This document is of course a work in progress, but we devised this resource primarily to begin this conversation with a global community, about how we wish to live in a future of pervasive intelligence.

Our hope is that this document may function as a resource for anyone, regardless of prior knowledge, technical education, or coding ability. In fact, the more distant your profession is from technology, the more we want this resource to make its way into your hands. However, Lingua Franca is not a complete end-to-end guide to building an AI system—that would require loads of documentation covering everything from programming to UX design to policy and ethics. Lingua Franca is a design language that contains reusable elements and techniques to give fresh ideas to creators.

We have laid out Lingua Franca so it can be used in multiple ways. You can read our handbook and principles all the way through as an introduction to designing with AI. The principles and elements can be used and returned to for reference, as a glossary of techniques and best practices. Finally, the entire document contains myriad questions and frameworks to enable fruitful discussions in a team or organizational setting.