What is Good Design? How is it Achieved?

This is a discussion that can be had by anyone. Design is experienced simply by living in a space, by using an object or tool or by interacting with almost any man-made entity. Design takes many forms such as graphic design, architecture, industrial design, typography or UX design.

What makes design so exciting is that the result is always intended for use - And when it is used, it is experienced. As with most things in life, we want experiences to be easy and hopefully pleasurable, maybe even satisfying... When something is really well designed, it delights us and feels exquisite.

Good design is about the psychology of people. People who have desires, flaws, severe bias and rampant emotion. This is explored in depth by Donald Norman, whose book I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend to anyone interested in design.

Are you a number person, or a word person? How you perceive the world around you is determined by your perceptual set. For example, an architect might look at a building and visualise the floor plan, whereas an Engineer might look at a building and see materials and mathematical principles. These conceptual frameworks through which we picture our world determine our skillset and how we interact with the world around us.

In general, the two core concepts which can describe any design, are that of form and function. Form being the aesthetic value of the result (from pretty to ugly), and function being how useful it is, or how well it works (from useful to useless). Function should always come before form and form should ideally imply function. This is summed up in the phrase, ‘form follows function’, first coined by Louis Henry Sullivan, considered the father of modernism.

All of design can be placed somewhere on the above axes, and depending on its qualities, may be described in a number of ways.

In the bottom half, something that is pretty but not useful does not serve it’s purpose and will often just frustrate the user. Something that is ugly and useless is probably not desirable, unless in an ironic hipster sort of way.

Good design, then, is anything in the top half of the graph. Beautiful design is self-explanatory, and useful but ugly design could be described as functional. For example the search engine google can hardly be said to be pretty but it is certainly effective and useful.

But what does it mean to design well?

This is what I have been learning today. A great resource for defining great design are the principles of Dieter Rams, a product designer whose work is considered timeless. His principles certainly define good design much better that I have, but they don’t really explain how to design.

Alas, I don’t have all the answers for you yet, but I am working on it. One thing I have learnt today, which has certainly made sense of a lot of the design I have experienced, is that of dominance, focal points and hierarchy, a subset of the principles of design. The essential idea is that, no matter how complex a design is, from a simple pen to an aircraft cockpit, every element of the design has a weight, and it is by manipulating the weight of the elements that the designer can create a dialogue with the user. This dialogue is opened with the dominant element of the design, and the user is lead through the design by considering the subsequent focal points. It is through this dialogue that the product is experienced.

While these principles apply more to visual disciplines such as graphic or UI Design, the concept is intriguing and applicable to the presentation of anything you see, from information through to food, furniture and clothes. But what about User Interfaces and User Experiences? How are they designed?

The method used in industry is Lean UX, a fast iterative method where ideas are validated with visual and interactive prototypes. Documentation is kept to a minimum, and the design process is managed using an Agile methodology.

At first, the design process with pen and paper, creating simple wireframes to communicate ideas. Pen and paper has many advantages; It is simple, it is rapid, it strips away colour and aesthetic to focus on function and it encourages feedback. This allows for lots of iterations on the design, which means a better understanding of what is important and what is not.

Next, the process is continued in software to test navigation and usability, and put a working prototype in the hands of everyone involved. The App Business, an agency that develops apps for clients, has summed up this process quite well here.

Once the functional working of the design has been finalised, the aesthetics and branding can be implemented. Up until this point, the form of the design should have been ignored, simply because it is not necessary and people tend to get attached to attractive visuals. As discussed earlier, form follows function, not the other way around.

The above maps the UX design process as it should unfold, in theory. I’m sure in reality it will be nowhere near that simple, and I can’t wait to get my hands dirty.