What makes a design good?

I was browsing the Herman Miller website recently and came across a reference to a book entitled Humble Masterpieces: Everyday Objects of Design by Paola Antonelli, a curator of MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design. The book highlights small objects that not only function well, but also, as the book’s publisher expressed it, “are true masterpieces of the art of design.”

This reminded me of a discussion in one of my graduate design studios. Our professor had asked us to bring in something we thought was well designed. All of us brought in things that functioned well in our lives – A Swiss Army knife, a cell phone, a child’s sippy cup. My choice was the Oxo Good Grips potato peeler. Oxo’s products are fabulous – they are easy and comfortable to hold, they are solidly constructed, they function as they are meant to function, and they are affordable.

My professor brought in an object of his own. It was a stainless steel ring, about 4 inches in diameter, meant to weigh down a stack of facial tissues in lieu of the less-than-attractive cardboard boxes in which tissues are packaged. What made this a good design? It functioned perfectly; it was simple, with no extraneous parts or decoration; its lines and material were sharp and elegant.

Nevertheless, nearly all of us reacted surprisingly negatively toward this object and I was among the detractors. If I tried to picture this object in my house, instead of a neat design solution, I saw a cat-clawed, child-skewed, and probably dusty pile of tissue creating a mess on my windowsill. The object seemed to be a product only a well-to-do family with a housekeeper, no cats, and some strick rules about what children could touch could successfully possess. Obviously, this is not true, but I think this classroom experience holds some valuable clues to the question of what is good design, not only for objects, but also for designed space.

I asked my professor to give us some guidance on how to differentiate “good” and “bad” design and he couldn’t really provide an satisfactory answer – for there really isn’t an answer to this question. A couple of things are clear, however.

  • First, design has a very personal component. What works for my professor’s lifestyle wouldn’t work for mine. This means that it’s important for us to fully understand our clients’ needs before we begin a design.
  • Second, design has to be functional. If it doesn’t work, and work well, it’s bad design. Paying attention to how a designed object or space will actually be used, whether the design works as it is supposed to work, and whether the design will cause negative impacts to the user or the environment are key.
  • Third, functionality alone is not sufficient. A well-designed object or space has to possess some pleasing qualities – a good feel in the hand, for example, or attractive lines or materials – and some component of ingeniousness, elegance, or timelessness.

So where does this leave students and new designers who are trying to develop a sense of design? Magazines showcase the work of a few designers, but it’s not entirely clear how projects are selected and whether they truly represent the best in design. Design schools ought to give us some help, but few of my professors broach this topic. Ultimately, we may be on our own, having to rely on our own perceptions and experiences. Over time the answer to this question should become easier – the more we learn, see, and do, the more tools we’ll have to make this determination.

Perhaps the small objects of everyday life are a good place to start.

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