The Design Doughnut Or What Is Good Design?

Too much design

One can have too much of a good thing. Design has a job to do. In designing products and services, design should make things more understandable, enjoyable, recognizable. If we look at Dieter Rams’ 10 principles of good design, design should even make things more innovative, honest and sustainable. One of Dieter Ram’s principles talks about the amount of design that is necessary. He argues that good design is as little design as possible, that design should not get in the way, maybe even be invisible. Knowing what as little design as possible is is hard to do and also leads to a style: minimalism. What appears like a universal rule is actually more an opinion, a design style. But it addresses a valid point: don’t overdo design. If you overdo design, it goes more towards art and that creates friction, friction that could be detrimental to the usability. In a commercial context where design is the service you provide, it can also take too much time to get it just perfect, to make it art, which someone ends up paying for. Art is meant to be critical, weird, confusing, maybe sometimes unpleasant and insulting. Those are hardly ever things you would want in design. You can go up to the edge, but if you go over, negative effects start to kick in. Unless you consciously decide to use design as art.

“Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?” — William Shakespeare

Too little design

Of course you can also have too little design. If a service or product is not clear, enjoyable, readable, inclusive, reassuring, helpful and understandable, you have too little design. There is a clear lower limit to the amount of design you need. One could misread Dieter Rams’ principle of as little design as possible as an excuse to not design at all, but that is a big mistake. Most irritations with products or services come from too little design. To make the minimalist design that Dieter Rams’ is talking about, the design that Jony Ive practices at Apple, takes a lot of design effort. Stripping design of all unnecessary elements while still keeping it usable is one of the hardest things a designer can do. Usability is design. If a product or service has too little design, it’s not usable.

“Good design is as little design as possible.” — Dieter Rams

The Design Doughnut

So for Good Design there is a lower and an upper limit. You need a certain minimal amount to make things usable (this can still be a lot of work), but you can also overdo it and turn it into art. Using Kate Raworth’s model of the Doughnut Economy, one could see the healthy space in which design has to operate as a doughnut:

The Design Doughnut

The challenge for design is to stay inside the doughnut. The lower limit of the usability foundation is a call to clients to realize the basic value design can bring to products and services. Like in Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economy model, the lower limit is about making the world a better place for everyone. The upper limit is a call to designers to not to fall in love with their designs too much, to not take design too far. Too much design can be as harmful as too little design. The upper limit is about the negative effects that kick in when you take things too far. It’s basically the classic story about Icarus who should avoid the water but flies too high which causes the wax to melt from his wings and dies. As crazy as it sounds, we can get caught up in the thing we’re doing versus the people we’re serving.

“Designers — and our industry in general — have suffered from, I would say, unconscious elitism. You know, we’ve been put in this position to control so much of everyone’s daily life. Some of us assume that everything we do is the correct answer, and we can’t take feedback. I’ve noticed a trend in designers being apprehensive to receive critiques from non-designers. It’s grown significantly.” — Jason Mayden

Magic in the middle

What happens in the middle is the magic of design. In the middle design creates meaning, expands possibilities in people’s daily lives, imagines a better future. In the middle design injects processes, minds and products with creativity, joy, life. In the middle design brings people together. In the middle design makes this world a better place.

“Because creativity is a service. We are a service, and that shouldn’t be a dirty word. Our job is to serve humanity.” — Jason Mayden

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership and Design Thinking in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn.