Designing with purpose

Adrian Zumbrunnen
Apr 13, 2016 · 4 min read

Why design might not always please

The wrath of the ugly chair

I’ve been happily designing and pushing pixels for a couple of years now. Good times! I’ve seen new trends come and go in a relative short amount of time. Time steadily weeding out the bad, while keeping the good.

Having practiced this UI/UX thing for some time now, I have slowly become more confident about the process and making decisions. Recently, however, I came across a few designs that are contrary to what I’ve learned. In fact, it made me question my understanding of what good design actually means.

Let me share a short love / hate story with you.

Every morning, I leave my apartment with a cup of coffee—a delicious latte freshly prepared to get me through the day.

On my way to work, I pass by Migros. A small nearby supermarket with an outside seating area. There is something about Migros that never ceases to amaze me: the monstrosity of its chairs!

Their design leaves me perplexed — every single time.

Migros’ red chair

Probably no sweet-talking in the world could make me want to put that chair in my apartment.

This made me wonder…

How can someone design something that’s both uncomfortable to look at and sit in at the same time?

I couldn’t come up with an answer but suddenly my inner critic started to feel a little better about himself. “I would never design something that’s so awful,” I thought.

After a while, I gradually stopped paying attention to the chairs… Until the wee hours of a Saturday morning, the chairs popped into my periphery again.

I was surprised to find the chairs weren’t chained or locked for the night. Now for readers who aren’t from Switzerland, this is really unusual. People lock up everything here.

And that’s when it hit me:

Unless someone wants to impress their friends with a terrible taste in furniture design, there is really no point in taking one of those chairs with you.

This made me dig a little deeper into my Saturday morning epiphany:

What if this chair’s design is ugly on purpose?

… and what does ugly mean in the first place? Is it about personal preference or is it universal? Maybe it’s both. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there might be more to the chair’s design than I initially thought.

Let’s talk about the color red for a second. I personally don’t like this tone of red. Maybe it’s because I’m color-blind and see the world different than most people. It feels very strong and pretty aggressive.

Color theory and research shows that there is more to it though. It turns out that red appears closer than it is and is great to attract peoples’ attention. It’s also known to raise your body’s metabolism which can increase appetite (surprise, surprise). In fact, restaurants have known about the importance of using red in design for quite some time. No wonder most fast food chains make extensive use of it.

What about shape?

One might think that comfort is one of the key tenets of good furniture design. But one might be wrong. In short, good design is about purpose. A restaurant might have different needs than comfort and looks.

In fact, restaurants and coffee shops (as much as I love them), found that chairs that aren’t too comfortable can actually increase turnover. So yes, there are designers out there, whose job is to create furniture that is only just the right amount of comfortable…

This made me wondering… How is that possible? But more importantly: is this good design?

Dieter Rams, former chief designer of German company Braun established 10 basic principles of good design. One of them goes

Good design is honest.

Is this design honest? Well if we’re thinking about the chair, what is honest design in the first place? Maybe like so many things, honesty depends on context.

He went on and said…

Good design is aesthetic.

We probably all agree that those chairs aren’t exactly aesthetically pleasing. But they seem to have a clear purpose. So perhaps, I was too quick in my initial judgement. I judged the chair by its look and feel and fell right into the trap of being superficial.

We are often very quick when it comes to judging people’s work, aren’t we? We judge the outcome, rather than the process. We judge, without understanding what a design actually tries to accomplish.

After all, this chair attracts attention, gets you hungrier, makes you eat quickly so you can get up again to find somewhere more comfortable.

This inconspicuous experience taught me that I need to give myself a little extra time. Just considering a design for a bit longer, often yields surprising insights. Suddenly I start to see possible reasons why something is designed the way it is. Often, these reasons are the reflection of countless discussions and a long process. A process that balances the needs of the user and the needs of a company.

So how do I feel about this chair today?

Now that I took more time and gave myself permission to question and understand what the design accomplishes, I was able to get new insights. I’ve come to appreciate the chair in its own unique way, because I found that its design might be more deliberate than I had initially assumed.

The next time I’m about to judge a design, I’m going to take a deep breath, walk over to Migros, have a latte, while sitting in that red chair.

Had similar observations? Let’s keep the conversation going. You can follow me on twitter.

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