What is Good Design?

What does Good Design mean? Can we all agree on what Good Design is?

Image of a mobile phone that says ‘design’ and the description of what design is by the dictionary.

What is Good Design? — This question has stuck with me for the last 8 years. This question started to nag me while studying Graphic Design at Central Saint Martin’s University in London. The question came from a mixture of trying to think of topics for my dissertation and something I was trying to understand myself as I was struggling with the marking system that my tutors used to grade our work.

In my first year at university, my grades were pretty low, and I was considering dropping out. However, as I got into the second year, my grades started to pick up. Though this change felt great, I didn’t feel like I was doing anything different from the previous year. And this is where my interest in discovering what Good Design actually was.

Form follows function

As my second year at university came to a close, my knowledge of Design and its principles began to broaden as I stumbled across the phrase form follows function. I can’t remember how I found this phrase now, but as soon as I discovered this quote it was like all my questions about what Good Design was had been answered, it was the sign I was looking for.

If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase, form follows function it was a term coined by a Chicago-based architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1896. This phrase suggested that the way something was designed should be based upon its purpose or need.

Side note: Though I still strongly agree with the form follows function principle. I’ve realised why I struggled to implement this Design principle in my work while at university. As I was studying Graphic Design, I worked on branding or conceptual briefs that focused on communication. Therefore the function was always similar, so I found it difficult to use the function to depict the form of the visual output. I also believe that I favoured this Design principle as it meant I had reasons for making specific decisions. Having a self-inforced principle to follow meant that I had one less decision to make as I had a criteria to follow, which ultimately made some decisions for me.

The Golden Ratio

With this newfound understanding that there could be rules in Design set me on the path of investigating and trying to discover whether there were more principles like form follows function and whether that meant that there might be a universal understanding of what Good Design was.

An image of the golden ratio spiral

I first approached the topic of Good Design from a scientific route. I had heard of the Golden Ratio before during a typesetting lecture, so this felt like a good avenue to pursue. I read a lot about how the Golden Ratio was considered to create harmony and proportion within Design, and it was this harmony that we as humans are attracted too. The Golden Ratio can be found countless times in nature, from plants to snail shells, and this discovery led me to believe that the satisfaction that we get from Design based on the Golden Ratio could be due to some primitive instinct. And it seems that this initial idea was not far off Professor Adrian Bejan’s discover in 2009. Bejan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina said that

“Shapes that resemble the golden ratio facilitate the scanning of images and their transmission through vision organs to the brain. Animals are wired to feel better and better when they are helped and so they feel pleasure when they find food or shelter or a mate. When we see the proportions in the golden ratio, we are helped. We feel pleasure and we call it beauty.”

This understanding that perhaps Good Design could be science-based rather than opinion-based was fascinating to me. I continued my research into Good Design, Visual Aesthetics and what humans enjoyed looking at. But in the end, I had found that my research had gone really off on a tangent. I had gotten to a stage where I was looking at how humans' eyes interpreted colour. Though this research was exciting, the information I was collecting created more questions than answers about what constituted as Good Design.

Ornament and Crime

I put my scientific research to rest and went back to looking at the history of Design. While revisiting material on Frank Lloyd Wright, I discovered an essay called ‘Ornament and Crime’. Adolf Loos wrote this essay during the height of Art Nouveau’s popularity. This Essay criticises decoration and ornamentation in useful objects, once again, Loos’ was an architect who had extreme opinions about what made Design good.

A book of Orament and crime by adolf loos

As I read more books and essays, it became clear to me that a significant number of modernist designers wanted to distance themselves from the unreasoned visual and aesthetics aspects of Design. Though I understood more about Design and those who had strong opinions within it, I wasn’t getting any closer to defining what Good Design was.

10 principles for Good Design

Before I knew it, I came across Dieter Rams and his 10 principles of Good Design, it was reassuring to know what someone had tried to quantify design in this way as this was what I was trying to understand.

An image of the 10 principles of good design
An image of the 10 principles of good design

Dieter Rams was an industrial product designer and considered one of the world's most influential industrial designers. Dieter was head of Braun's design team for over 30 years and made inspiring products from radios to shavers. It was 1976 when Dieter Rams gave a lecture on the work he was doing for Vitsoe. In that talk, he spoke of his 10 principles for Good Design and how they were away for helping him think about what Good Design during his making.

The principles were:

  1. Good design is innovative.
  2. Good design makes a product useful.
  3. Good design is aesthetic.
  4. Good design makes a product understandable.
  5. Good design is unobtrusive.
  6. Good design is honest.
  7. Good design is long-lasting.
  8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail.
  9. Good design is environmentally-friendly
  10. Good design is as little design as possible.

Understanding that Good Design could be based on high-level principles suddenly made it easier to understand that there was no set formula, e.g. All text is 16px and is 30px from the left of the artboard.

These principles are still a solid foundation, but I would believe they could be expanded to include; Good Design is inclusive, Good Design inspires, and finally, Good Design makes people better.

So what is good design?

Ultimately it’s up to you to decide what is Good Design, and then you will find others like you. At university, I struggled because I was an incredibly logical person in a place full of artists. I couldn’t see how to be more like them, design like them, and become more creative. What I considered Good Design was not the same as them, and that’s okay.

It’s only now that I’m in the working world that I’ve found my place with others who have similar metrics on what constitutes as Good Design. I’m working as a digital product designer, and I get great satisfaction from designing a product or service for a group of people and that product will make their life better in some way. That is what Good Design is to me. I still appreciate visual design or art, and I no longer have to force functionality into it. I’m now able to appreciate that something being beautiful just for the sake of it is still valuable — beautiful design provokes an experience and expression, and that’s a function all in itself.

What do you think good design is? Is there a way we can measure it? Does it depend on the industry? Let me know your thoughts! Get in touch or leave a comment as I’d love to hear your point of view. Find me over at Twitter @lizhamburger

Writing about design and some other bits in between | Digital Product Designer Contractor at @RivalLondon| Event organiser for Triangirls | Formally at @Inktrap

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