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What Is Good Design?

What Is Good Design?

International Herald Tribune

August 04, 2010

I’ve learned (the hard way) not to do it, but if random strangers – like taxi drivers, or whoever’s sitting on the next airplane seat – ask what I do and I’m rash enough to confess to being a design critic, they invariably follow up with: “So what is good design?”

The stock answer is that good design is generally a combination of different qualities – what it does, what it looks like, and so on. But as our expectations of design change, so do those qualities and the relationship between them. Let’s look at what they are – and where they stand – right now:

1. What it Does

This is the nonnegotiable. Whatever it is, and whatever other great qualities it has, it can’t be well designed if it doesn’t do something useful. Even better is if that something couldn’t have been done before. That’s always been so, all the way back to the early 200s B.C. when Emperor Qin Shihuangdi conquered China equipped with a very early example of good design. The armies of the day were led by archers who made their own weapons, with the result that each archer’s arrows could only be fired from his own bow. Qin insisted that all arrows be made to the same length with identical, replaceable tips. If an archer ran out during a battle, he could use his colleagues’, and if he died, his ammunition wasn’t wasted.

Even today it’s possible for something to qualify as good design simply by fulfilling its function efficiently. Take Google’s logo. Stylistically, it’s awful with a dodgy font and the twee illustrations for the customized “holiday logos” with which Google marks special occasions such as Christmas Day, St. Patrick’s Day and landmark birthdays. But those tweely illustrated logos are so much fun – like a gift from Google – that they make us think more fondly of it. Job done.

2. How It Looks

Few things enrage design purists more than suggesting that good design is all about looks. It isn’t. But Qin’s arrows and Google’s logo are exceptions, because function is seldom enough either, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying eye candy. That’s why textbook examples of good design – such as Marcel Breuer’s 1920s chairs, or Dieter Rams’s 1950s electrical products for Braun – tend to score highly on form and function. But our perception of what looks good is becoming increasingly complex, and often contradictory.

Once we sought beauty in art, but now we tend to prize it for being challenging or provocative, and feel more comfortable admiring beauty in things that are also useful, like Apple’s gorgeous digital products. We’ve also grown suspicious of beauty in an era when we know that so many “beautiful” images are literally optical illusions, the result of digital retouching. Perhaps that’s why the jolie laide aesthetic of the German designer Konstantin Grcic has become so fashionable in furniture design. Its ungainliness seems authentic.

3. What’s New

The belief that the new is better than the old was a central tenet of 20th-century design culture, and it’s still seductive today. Geeky though this sounds, I love the styling of the new Coca-Cola Classic can, but love it even more for knowing that it’s the product of the latest printing technology.

But innovation isn’t enough on its own. Take the glue invented in 1968 by 3M, which could stick paper onto a flat surface but wasn’t strong enough to do so permanently. It was a useless innovation until one of the company’s scientists was in church and realized that the glue could have stopped his bookmark from slipping out of his hymnbook. Cue the very useful Post-it note. Our faith in the new has also been shaken by environmental concerns (though more about them later). We still see innovation as being beneficial, not least as it’s our best chance of tackling our environmental problems, but we’re more skeptical about it. Take the Nano, the cheap five-seater car launched by Tata in India. Once we’d have raved about a people’s car selling for as little as 100,000 rupees, or $2,400; instead we grouch about its ecological impact.

4. How It Works

This has always mattered. No one likes things that are tricky to operate, but how they work (or, to be specific, how we work them) matters much more today; at least it does when it comes to digital products. You can guess roughly how to operate an electronic object, like a TV set or record player, just by looking at it. But how could anyone be expected to know what to do with an inscrutable box of tricks, like an MP3 player or a cellphone, from its opaque appearance?

That’s why the user interface software (“U.I.” in geek-speak), which determines how we operate digital devices, is now so important in shaping our experience of using them, and whether or not we consider them to be well designed. Lousy U.I. design spawns irritatingly overcomplicated products. The inspired variety produces ones, like the iPhone, which are so easy to operate that you don’t need an instruction manual, or like the Wii, which are pure enjoyment.

5. Guilt

What’s the point of designing something gorgeous and useful if it makes us feel guilty, because we know that it’s ethically or environmentally irresponsible? Once such concerns were dismissed as the hang-ups of a cranky minority. Not now. Just think of how quickly the plastic bag has become taboo in many countries.

How can we consider something to be well designed unless we feel confident about the way it was designed and made, and will be eventually be disposed of? Tata’s Nano is a prime example. Yet guiltlessness alone isn’t always enough. Think of the compact fluorescent light bulbs, which consume much less energy than their electricity-guzzling incandescent predecessors, but are so ugly, both in themselves and their soulless light, that they couldn’t possibly qualify as good design.

© 2008 YellowBrix, Inc.

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