The tyranny of consistency

Consistency is helpful as a tool for designing user-friendly experiences. Until it isn’t.

Robert Stribley
UX Collective
Published in
6 min readOct 26


A rather bizarre image resulting from the MidJourney prompt “the tyranny of consistency” features quite a few similar looking pale creature who appear in seats and bleacher like structures, possibly in judgment of some sort of proceedings. The image is largely in red and a dirty light brown color and appears rather ominous. Overall a lot of Heironymous Bosch or Salvador Dali vibes.
MidJourney output for the prompt: “the tyranny of consistency.” No idea what’s going on, but it does look pretty tyrannical. — Robert Stribley

In a recent post on LinkedIn, design system consultant Brad Frost referenced Google’s notoriously baffling 2020changes to the icons for its popular apps, simply noting, “All this time later, I still consider this decision to be a big mistake.” Erica Hall, co-founder of Mule Design commented beneath: “Foolish consistency. I hate it.”

Screenshot showing Google icons for their most popular apps, which they changed form the ones in the top row to the ones in the bottom. Apps for Gmail, Calendar, Drive, Docs and Meet.
In 2020, Google changed the icons for their most popular apps from the ones in the top row to the ones in the bottom. Some confusion ensued.

I agree. The problem is Google’s updated icons are more consistent to a fault: You can no longer distinguish between them quickly at a scan.

I often refer to “the tyranny of consistency” (with tongue somewhat in cheek) in my UX classes. My takeaway there is this:

Consistency is an important but sometimes over-rated tool. It’s key in maintaining a coherent experience. But develop an eye to know when to break from it.

To be sure then, in principle, consistency does help contribute to maintaining cohesive user experiences, but we also need to recognize that forcing things to fit sometimes actually undermines usability. Spotting those moments and determining how best to articulate why they are a problem is its own skill.

I had been grappling with this dynamic when occasionally encountering situations with clients, where they insisted that something be changed in our designs “to be consistent,” though I knew that “consistent” in these specific situations was not congruent with “usable.” Sometimes, consistency becomes a blunt tool: Like trying to sledgehammer a square peg into a round hole.

“Consistency is a tool, not a rule.” — John Musci, Senior Content Strategist, Microsoft

I had been joking about this “tyranny of consistency” for several years. I even presented on it within a larger talk entitled “Everything Is Not Important” at SXSW in 2013. So I was much relieved to eventually discover that voices in design much greater than mine agreed.



Writer. Photographer. UXer. Creative Director. Interests: immigration, privacy, human rights, design. UX: Publicis Groupe. Teach: SVA. Aussie/American. He/him.