Everywhere we go, we are surrounded by bad design — from airplane seats that distort our posture to aesthetically inelegant cars. Landscapes that were once green and blue are now paved over. Our surroundings are full of missed opportunities to introduce delight and joy into people’s lives.
Poorly designed things slow us down and make us sad — like the ugly building in your neighborhood that makes you wince every time you see it, or the TV remote control with too many buttons, or the software that just won’t work. These objects and experiences are outcomes of miscommunication, greed, lack of empathy, and lack of focus. Bad design is especially depressing given the price imposed on this planet. Sometimes it seems like we are filling the world with junk.
As the technology industry matures, we have witnessed greater interest and investment in design. Companies now embrace the notion that design can be a competitive advantage that differentiates them from the competition. Our understanding of what “design” means has increasingly deepened over the years, moving beyond aesthetics and towards problem solving skills. For the last couple of decades in the software industry we claim a product is “well-designed” when a product is considered useful, usable, and desirable. We can do better than that. We need to do better than that.
What do I mean? Before we get too deep, let me give you some context by taking a step back to review for a moment the different levels at which design can be understood.
Design = Form
The most basic understanding of what design is typically relates to aesthetics. Universal principles of beauty, such as the Golden Ratio, Rule of Thirds, or principles of proximity, alignment, contrast, and repetition, inform our innate sense of whether something is beautiful or not. At this level of understanding of design, we think of design as the outward appearance of an object, such as whether a car looks fast, or expensive, or muscly.
Design = Function
But design is not just what an object looks like but also how it works. We consider an object well-designed not only when it is beautiful but also useful and easy to use. Good design makes our lives easier, saves us time, and reduces cognitive load, which in turn reduces stress in our lives and preserves willpower and goodwill towards others. In this sense, good design is like a refrigerator — when it works, no one notices, but when it doesn’t, it sure stinks.
Design = Brand
When a company consistently delivers an aesthetic and functional quality, design becomes the brand. It becomes the vehicle by which companies create an emotional connection to their customers. Consumers choose to associate themselves with certain brands because the brands embody and represent values and ideals that appeal to them.
Design = Experience
Towards the late 90s, successful design meant orchestrating memorable events for customers, and that memory itself became the product — the “experience”. Take American Girl dolls, for example. It’s not just enough to buy a doll. In the experience economy, now you can design your own doll, customize it to look like you, give her a spa day, get her hair extensions. It’s not just about buying a doll but creating an entire experience around acquiring and owning this doll. Design goes beyond the product and brand and encompasses the entire customer experience.
Design Thinking = Problem solving
The term “design thinking” was popularized by IDEO and Stanford University over the last 10 years. Design thinking refers to a set of cognitive processes directed toward problem solving. Different stages of the design thinking process includes defining the problem, building empathy for users, generating many ideas, prototyping possible solutions, gathering feedback, and iterating. With this understanding of design, design is about solving problems.
Design is a term that refers to what something or some service looks like, how it behaves, the emotions evoked when people interact with it, the experience one has when one interacts with it, and way of thinking and acting to solve problems. It is also a manifestation of the Self.
Design = Self
What do we mean by the Self? A quick Google search comes up with this definition: “a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, especially considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action.”
Any creative endeavor is an expression of the human spirit. When we create something, we create an outward expression of who we are, and the values and virtues that we have internalized. What we make embodies our values and virtues, and becomes a tangible expression of our Self.
Take fashion design, for example. In the early 1900s, stylish clothes were complicated and very expensive. They were designed to portray women as delicate and passive, and were highly impractical for anything other than to sit around and entertain guests in the drawing room. The clothes signaled an aspiration.
Coco Chanel grew up poor, skinny, and orphaned during this era. But she believed she was as good as the rich girls who spurned her. With her spunk and flair, she grew up to be a confident, capable woman, energetic, focused, and engaged with the world.
Chanel had a different vision of existence for women, and the clothes she designed represented a different ideal from what fashionable clothes of the day were about. Her little black dress, introduced in 1926, embodied virtues that she valued in herself, and reflect a woman who was energetic, competent, and engaged with the world, just like herself. Chanel’s clothes focused on quality and were not about following the latest trends. Sure enough, Chanel’s designs have endured over decades and are still relevant now.
Take a look at these products designed under the direction of Dieter Rams for Braun. The products, like Rams himself, are humble, modest, and hard-working. Even though these were created in the middle of the last century, these products have inspired the design many of our beloved technology gadgets today, a testament to the endurance and purity of Rams’s vision.
Being simple may make us feel vulnerable, but simplicity is really an achievement — it follows from deep introspection about what really matters, a result of hard-won clarity and focus. These acts reflect virtues such as nonstriving, nonattachment, and overcoming fear. Well designed products, like their makers, are imbued with modesty: they don’t try to attract your attention for no reason. They are happy to sit in the background and do the work.
Many of us have seen what the opposite of this looks like. How many of you have been asked to save the design of a product when larger fundamental problems make your endeavors feel like putting lipstick on a pig?
Have you ever witnessed a company that was afraid to turn away easy revenue opportunities that didn’t make sense for the product? That is an outcome of greed.
Or how about the development team that keeps adding features just because they can? That is an outcome of attachment, or striving.
Or maybe the company that won’t make the hard decision to kill a middling product because they don’t want to make current users angry? That is an outcome of fear.
Fear, greed, and attachment are just a few examples of afflictions of the Self that can plague any company. They dilute the purity of the true intention behind what is being made. For any organization or individual making a product or a service, the clarity and simplicity of the design depends crucially on their ability to confront these issues in order to better align with their intention.
The story of Steve Jobs returning to Apple in 1997 famously illustrates this point. When Jobs returned to Apple, he simplified the product offering by streamlining the product portfolio, cutting the product line from 350 products to 10 products. He maintained that what really mattered was not what they did do but what they didn’t do. Instead of producing so many products, Jobs focused on a few machines that were meticulously perfected.
Jobs had a clear intention, a commitment to quality over quantity. Many executives may make the same claim, but are reluctant to actually make tough choices. Consider how emotionally hard it can be to cut products that have already been designed and manufactured and to eliminate jobs for 3000 employees. Jobs wasn’t afraid of making a tough choice that would make him unpopular. He was willing to risk his popularity with others in the pursuit of upholding his vision which he believed would save the business and serve users better. He transcended any feelings of greed, attachment, and fear that might accompany such a decision.
When we are fearful, greedy, or attached, our actions get manifested in the design as complexity and clutter. The more able we are to transcend our beliefs about our Self, the better we can create a great design that clearly expresses our intention. What we create reflects our inner state.
As much as what we make embodies our Self, we pass on our attributes, vision, and intent to others when they consume what we make. Design is the culmination of intention, values, and principles manifested in tangible form and passed on to another. Design has the power to shape how we think and feel.
Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia University, studied the impact clothes can have on how we think about ourselves and our performance. Participants were given the Stroop test, where they are shown names of various colors printed in a different color, and are asked to name the color that they see. This is a pretty tricky test, because our natural tendency is to read the name of the color rather than the color we perceive. But those who wore white lab coats performed significantly better on this test than those who wore their ordinary clothes.
What’s also interesting is that this happened when the participants were told they were wearing “white lab coats”. In another variation of this experiment, participants were told they were wearing “a painter’s coat”. Same coat, but now it’s called a painter’s coat. This time, they did not experience the same gains in performance on the Stroop test. Why? Because they said they were projecting a certain image of the kind of person who would wear such a coat, like a creative artist, who doesn’t care about accuracy and performance.
These participants were primed to project a certain image about the white garment by being told what it was, which in turn affected how they performed. In regular everyday life, we are not usually told what the psychological qualities are of the objects we use. But when something is designed with a clear intention, that intention is more effectively channeled through that creation and conveyed to the recipient of that design.
Let’s go back to Coco Chanel. In Chanel’s little black dress, women could be efficient, organized, serious, and in control, yet while still being graceful and hip. When a woman wears a Chanel dress, she embodies the virtues Chanel imbued in her designs, whether or not she knows anything about who Coco Chanel was.
Consider the Braun watch. On the surface, the watch looks like a bland, ordinary watch. But on a deeper level, it hints at psychological or even spiritual ideals of purity, simplicity, and harmony. The watch does more than tells us what time it is. It gently nudges us towards the ideals it conveys and represents. It makes us want to be on time.
Contrast the Braun watch with the G-Shock watch by Casio. The watch conveys a focus on durability, even under the duress of water and shock. The wearer of this watch is making a statement that says he is sporty, tough, and rugged.
Or this watch, called the Slow Watch. This watch has a 24-hour face, as opposed to 12 hours. The density of the numbers on the watch means that it’s utterly impossible to distinguish between 3:41 pm vs. 3:42 pm. The wearer of this watch does not intend to have his day scheduled down to the minute, but rather to live in larger increments of time, like 15 minutes. The slow founders assert on their website, “Slow is not a speed. It is a mindset that most of us somehow lost. Let’s make time to bring slow back into our life. Be slow…” The founders of Slow value the slow life, and by wearing the watch they designed, the wearer is able to live the slow life too.
We may not always be consciously aware or able to describe how objects make us feel, but we do sense a spirit or an energy that emanates from the objects we use and the experiences we engage with.
The Eames lounge chair by Charles and Ray Eames, designed in the mid-century, is reminiscent of a bygone era. Its masculine structure offers a supportive “man-cave” in a chair, beckoning the owner to sit, relax, and unwind after a busy day, maybe read the paper or watch TV until dinner is ready.
The Wishbone chair by Hans Wegner communicates a set of important values: straightforwardness, honesty, and elegance. It is sturdy without being hefty and heavy. It is humble and casual, but dignified. Its welcoming, unimposing design welcomes us to sit on it, and as we do, we become a bit more like it.
Various religions implicitly understand this relationship between design and its impact on the human spirit. From the ornate and ostentatious to the streamlined and simple, places of worship have been designed for centuries to evoke a certain set of virtues and ideals, and maybe bring people a little closer to God. Whether you are religious or not, you cannot help but pause and appreciate the beauty of these places of worship and prayer, bringing you a little closer to serenity and equanimity.
A well designed object or space can bring out the best in us. Conversely, a poorly designed object can represent the worst sides of human nature — greed, insensitivity, the desire to prevail no matter what the cost. As much as beauty promises goodness, ugliness evokes despair, suffering, and immorality.
Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series, implicitly understood this. One of his most notorious villains, Goldfinger, was named after a real person named Erno Goldfinger. Erno Goldfinger was an architect who was known for making giant, hulking, austere concrete buildings which were characteristic of the Brutalist architectural movement.
This architectural trend, popular in the 1950s and 60s, was known for its use of cheap concrete building materials and became popular after World War II because it provided a sense of security in areas that had been devastated during bombings. Brutalism was also associated with a socialist utopian ideology, which prevailed in European communist countries from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s. The foreboding style conjure images of totalitarianism, violence, force, and stark utility. The severe exteriors of these buildings appear unimaginative and bland. To Fleming, the ugliness of Brutalist architecture was personified as evil, embodied in his fictional evil villain Goldfinger.
When positive ideals are manifested in objects and products we use, those objects and products play a sort of positive psychological or spiritual role in our lives. Well designed products are manifestations of mindfulness, virtues like patience, resilience, iteration, focus, empathy, nonattachment, all at play. When we use these products regularly, they give us a chance to get closer to our better selves. When they are contained in physical things, psychological qualities that are otherwise often intermittent in our thoughts and conduct become more stable and constant. An inner evolution takes place, which is why we form an emotional connection to well designed things. Well designed objects help us grow into our better selves and serve as ever present reminders of what we could be.
The ability for design to influence how we think and feel goes beyond physical objects and spaces and extends into ephemeral experiences like service design and digital product design.
For example, with Google, Larry and Sergey aimed to build powerful technology that helps people find information efficiently. They invented algorithms that made it possible to find information easily, but it didn’t just stop there. They committed billions of dollars of capital outlay to create infrastructure to make web search as fast as possible. They championed company objectives, called OKRs, centered around reducing latency (the time it takes to get a response back from a search query). They also did this by bringing to life a set of values around efficiency and scale through the streamlined interface. Everything done at Google was prioritized against creating a powerful, efficient tool. By using Google to search the web, or manage our email, documents and photos, we in turn feel powerful, efficient, and capable.
Nutanix is an enterprise cloud company that makes data center infrastructure. The leadership champions virtues like “empathy” and “frictionless” throughout the company.
Here are a few examples of how these virtues play out in the customer experience. Most customer support interfaces bury the ability to escalate cases because they are time consuming and costly. Nutanix puts this function at the very top, sending a message to its customer support representatives that no issue is too small, no customer too unimportant to be escalated.
Another example is with upgrading the data center infrastructure software. Upgrading software for data centers is typically complicated and risk-prone especially when large clusters of machines need to be upgraded. Understanding this challenge, the company reduced all these activities to a one-click operation where the system administrator starts the process and Nutanix does the rest. You can see from enthusiastic tweets (e.g. #lovemyjob) how much their customers feel cared for — they can upgrade from their Tesla, or perform upgrades while barbecuing.
What we become, so we make. What we make and consume, is what we become.
We need good design in the world, not because we want to be extravagant or superfluous, not to get people to buy more stuff, but because good design helps us to be the best version of ourselves.
In order to make well designed products, we need to transcend that which holds us back from making things great, like fear, greed, attachment, ego. When we understand and embody the virtues we want to express through the design, we become oriented towards wholesome action, and that gets expressed in what we design. This, in turn, affects how others think and feel, so they can embody those virtues as well. It is the greatest gift we can possibly share as designers.
Many thanks to Fred Chung, Albert Poon, and Satish Ramachandran for their feedback.
Update: The original post included a photo of the Fiat Multipla, to illustrate an “aesthetically inelegant car”. It won Top Gear’s “Ugliest Car” award in 1999. Despite its hideous look which was at times described as looking like a “psychotic cartoon duck”, it does have its fans and by non-aesthetic measures is considered a well-designed car. Based on readers’ comments I decided to remove the image of the Multipla because the debate over whether it is well-designed or not was detracting from the overall point of the essay.