Design for people, not yourself

At Studio Function, we spend a lot of time reflecting on the state of design (possibly too much). Over the past 15 years we’ve galvanized many of our personal definitions of design, the design process, and its role in the world. It’s not every day that we’re confronted with ideas around design that… annoy the shit out of us.

Enter Massimo Vignelli (RIP) and his coffee cup rant in “Design Is One,” where he tips his hand to a deeper personal philosophy of the role/nature of design.

Design Is One is a documentary about Lella and Massimo Vignelli, an inspirational wife/husband duo who have been credited with many design-based feats, including introducing Helvetica to the design vernacular in America. Watch the scene at 31′45″ in the film.
“In Europe, we never fill up the cup all the way, you know, we call it a demitasse for that reason. The Americans, they fill up the cup all the way, so when the coffee was reaching here (top of the handle)— it was finding a nice gutter to go down, and finding a nice flat surface to go all the way, and would end up on the tablecloth… with a great scandal for the user.”
“They would complain: ‘Eh! You gave me a cup with a hole!’ So they start to complain, to the point where Heller decided to close the thing (gap at the top). Now what I don’t understand is, why do you complain? I mean, can’t you just understand not to fill up all the way? …Or is it asking too much to be civilized? You know? Perhaps that is the point. Maybe I was asking too much.. and eventually we had to give up, to the taste of the vulgars.”

TL;DR

Europeans fill cups half way, Americans fill all the way. With Vignelli’s cup design, that means that coffee spills out the gap at the top of the handle. Americans are obviously annoyed and complain to the manufacturer. Vignelli is angry at the user for drinking coffee the ‘wrong’ way.


As much as we admire and respect the work and legacy of the Vignellis, this scene totally blindsided us, and not in a good way. We stared at each other and collectively winced. “Oh god, are we terrible designers because we think that the great Massimo Vignelli just mumbled a crock of shit?”

The fallacy of objective design

Here’s the gist: it sounds to us that Vignelli was upset because he believes in a universal (objective) design language. A voice so pure that all sentient humans have no choice but to feel its beauty and understand its function. This aspiration is present in all of his work — from industrial design to visual communication design — and he is frustrated in this clip because vulgar, provincial, uncultured Yankee rednecks were using his cup “incorrectly.”

But that’s just it — how can you get mad at one group of people for not being familiar with the way another culture drinks coffee on the other side of the planet? Beyond that, who is to say that the European demitasse is the “most cultured” or “most polite” way to pour and enjoy a cup of hot bean juice? Who’s responsible for prescribing those sweeping definitions — Rich people? Old people? Baby Jesus? Last time we checked, there was no absolute ‘right’ way to make and drink a cup of coffee. People do it differently all over the world… in Japan, coffee comes in a can so you can enjoy it at the train station. In Ethiopia, the coffee ceremony is a long and important event.

We don’t believe that design should strive to be objective, because nothing (including design) can truly be objective — it’s just not possible.

The objective world is always perceived through the senses and interpretations of the subject (human, machine, or otherwise). Because of this ever-present subjective lens, pure objectivity is not accessible to us (creepy, eh!?). There will always be a layer of interpretation for information to pass though. Every object, or experience, or interaction is wrapped by the various structures we all have to label/define things and assign meaning.

Heller stacking dishes, designed in 1964 by Lella and Massimo Vignelli. Note the updated design at the top of the mug handle where the “coffee spill gap” was later closed up (reluctantly) to respond to user feedback. Buy them at the MoMA Store or DWR.

Respond to issues from real users

For design to be successful it must acknowledge and embrace the inescapable nature of subjectivity and respond to the actual needs of actual users. This means, in practical terms, that to successfully communicate the designer must have fluency in the audience’s language of experience, and know how to build messages (or objects, or interactions) that resonate meaningfully within that audience’s existing vocabulary and definition of the world.

Think about it: each of us has our own personal collection of memories, cultural associations, values, and preferences — so how can we expect all people to respond the same way to a single piece of design? Just because one group of people have a different set of interpretations or preferences doesn’t render them inferior.

Don’t let your personal biases infiltrate your design process. Test assumptions with real users and listen/integrate their feedback into your work. Don’t throw a fit if your coffee cup designed for the sensitivities of Europeans doesn’t test well with Americans that drink in a totally different way.

Check yo self…

Subjective design acknowledges that there is no universal “right” answer, and that we should stop looking for one. It means that the right solution is always directly related to the needs of the audience. The better we can define that audience, and listen to their needs and inputs, the greater our ability to design something for them that will be understood and used how we intend it to be.

When embarking on a new design project, don’t be afraid to work with stakeholders to define a very specific audience for your communications. Look closely at the fabric of their experiences and expectations, hone your skills of intuition while leveraging research and iterative processes to make your work stronger. Always test your hypotheses and never blame your users for not getting it—if the feedback is consistent, there’s probably something that you’re not getting.