Chess, design and software

I used to be a vaguely competent chess player, and now, with my eldest child beginning to play, I’m renewing my interest in a game that gave me much happiness as a boy.  She is learning from the same book I did 30 years ago.

Via JP’s post on cemeteries, I was reminded of the Staunton Chess set.


(from flickrstream of alanlight, thanks)

Chess had been around for ages, and just about everybody used different piece designs. After all, the sets were often handmade, and there was very little formalised international chess. This began to change in the 1800’s, as chess boomed.

A gamesmaker, John Jaques, released the set in 1849. It was called the Staunton after the most  famous chess player of the time. Staunton was heavily involved in the marketing of the product, and wikipedia reckons this was one of the first examples of celebrity marketing.

A set of Chessmen, of a pattern combining elegance and solidity to a degree hitherto unknown, has recently appeared under the auspices of the celebrated player Mr. STAUNTON. A guiding principle has been to give by their form a signification to the various pieces – thus the king is represented by a crown, the Queen by a coronet, &c. The pieces generally are fashioned with convenience to the hand; and it is to be remarked, that while there is so great an accession to elegance of form, it is not attained at the expense of practical utility. Mr. STAUNTON’S pattern adopts but elevates the conventional form; and the base of the Pieces being of a large diameter, they are more steady than ordinary sets.

There are different theories as to the design of the pieces. The romantic theory is that Nathaniel Cook, Jaques’s brother in law, designed them, inspired by the Victorian infatuation with Greek architecture.  Elgin marbles and so on….

A second theory is that Jacques designed something himself that was easy and cheap to mass produce.

The reality is probably a mix of the two.

The design is great because it does several things.

1. reduces confusion through simplicity

2. The pieces are easy to recognise from several angles. Many design clues help you recognise the pieces. (height, weight, outlines, and small details)

3. They are stable, thanks to a heavy base

4. They easily repeatable due to mass production, and therefore cheap.

5. All the pieces work well together

6.  They are aesthetically pleasing, but don’t compete for attention with the game itself.


These are good principles for software.

1. A purpose

2- easy to use, lots of unobtrusive clues

3. stable

4. repeatable. (more industry, less craft)

5. great look and feel

6. work well with others

7. A means to an end

Too much software is built like pre-staunton chess sets. Too ornate, too idiosyncratic, too instable, too intrusive  and too expensive.

7 thoughts on “Chess, design and software”

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