What makes a good design good and a bad design bad? We could start by exploring what design is. I will start by outlining my understanding of design from the point of view of a product/graphic designer.
Design is the outcome (a product) of an activity, but design is also the activity itself (the process of envisioning and planning the creation of a product). Then there is design thinking, which is the process of creative problem solving. From here we can deduce that products are made to solve a certain problem therefore the sole purpose of design is to create solutions. However, we must look at it from a broader perspective because the discipline of design does not relate just to physical objects (products). We also have Urban Design, Landscape Design, Social Design, Graphic Design, Service Design, Animation Design, Communication Design, Marketing Design, Experience Design, and more. Of course, all these disciplines have some similarities in their methods and principles but not all of them are necessarily problem focused. Furthermore, we must acknowledge that the activity of design is as old as humankind itself – it is in our nature to interfere and alter our surroundings for our benefit. The modern world has surpassed ‘the design for need’ instead we are designing to satisfy our wants and desires. As we have evolved, our things had to keep up the pace – simply getting the job done is no longer good enough. Furthermore, objects are now attached to brands, slogans, tribes, etc. and this shift erased the more utilitarian design with design that means business.
What if we turn to Dieter Rams, who is famous for his Braun designs and his philosophy of “Less is more.”, for some advice. Rams has composed a list of 10 design principles that are to this day upheld as the golden rules of design.
1) Is innovative
2) Makes a product useful
3) Is aesthetic
4) Makes a product understandable
5) Is unobtrusive
6) Is honest
7) Is long-lasting
8) Is thorough down to the last detail
9) Is environmentally friendly
10) Involves as little design as possible
We cannot confirm nor deny that Dieter’s thinking is true or false. However, we can be certain that it is not the ultimate truth because there cannot be an ultimate decision on what is wrong or right. The whole concept of dividing things into good and bad is relative and self-serving. These principles are subjective to Dieter Rams and they are the fundamentals of good design for him – not for everyone. Another reason why these principles cannot be held up as a checklist for good design is because they have been formulated in a completely different era. Innovation created new parameters by which we can measure how good design is - like experience.
We probably could not point out good design when we see it because if it works, looks, and behaves as it should then we have no reason to even consider its presence. On the other hand, we are quick to complain when something is not fulfilling its promise. In these cases, the dissatisfaction could be caused by poor design but sometimes it occurs when there is a mismatch between the product and the user, perhaps a swing that was not meant to withstand the weight of an adult or a larger child? In other cases, it is the fault of the user and their carelessness when handling the product which in turn causes the product to be faulty. As we can see, the human factor is responsible for far more than it takes credit for. Design is subjective whether we like it or not, even though design teams have measures in place like prototyping, failure analysis testing or user groups to prevent this. In the end, products are made by a few for the many. In an ideal world design would stay true to this charming definition by Clive Dilnot.
“The design object, no matter what its mundanity, is like a collective gift, it is issued for all of us, and its function or work is giftlike in that its form embodies recognition of our concrete needs and desires … the designer-maker knows, and has understood, recognized, affirmed, and sought to concretely meet our most intimate and human needs and desires.”
From my own perspective I would set my pillars of good design on:
Function (Does it solve my problem?)
Communication (Can I understand it easily? Does it provide feedback?)
Experience (Is it pleasurable to use and own? Do I enjoy it?)
Ethics (Is it causing harm to any other entities?)
Lastly, if there was such a tool that would measure how good design is how come that we do not know about it already? If we had means to measure good design then it would surely be a mandatory test for all products and services, but that does not seem to be the case.
The only cases of truly bad design, which resulted in injury or death, have been identified when it was too late. I guess we can all remember the Ikea wardrobe that collapsed on a child or perhaps you have seen a few articles where UX design is accused of being the lead cause behind a plane crash or a case of mistreatment in hospital care. The thing with killer design is that we do not know about it right up until it is too late. Ultimately, Design is ambiguous.
We have developed model to test how we might measure and compare design. This model allows us to measure 6 different features of design (Usefulness, Experience, Sustainability, Aesthetics, Simplicity, and Ethics). It is quite easy to apply however the features of sustainability and ethics are quite hard to score without undertaking further research about the company/brand, which only proves that it is not just about the product. Furthermore, this experiment also revealed that Experience and Aesthetics play a major role, along with emotional connection (My metal shoe horn serves as a great example of this. It has been in my family for longer than I am alive. The scratch marks might be a 'turn off' for some but these surface imperfections only deepen my emotional tie with this object.)