04 September 2012

The Merits of Good Design

I make it a habit to attend school every so often. In doing so, I learn things. Sometimes.

Lately I've been noticing a lot of overlap. Most of it can be summed up in cliches like "Content is King" or "Form Follows Function" or probably some other pleasantly alliterative phrases.

I find that it often works the opposite way in real life.

People like flash. Not Flash like Adobe's slowing dying online-gaming (and other things?) platform, and not flash like the stuff on the walls at tattoo parlors. Some people like that kind of flash but I mean more flashy things. They want to be wowed. People like to see zip and vim and punch and je ne c'est pas and they can't quite put their finger on it. But it needs to look good. That's what counts.

That's short-sighted. A multimediastravaganza speech given without any thought to what it's about is empty. It's a tech demo. Design without content is meaningless. It's just something to look at. Music without form is jazz (zing!). Except, I think you could tell the difference between jazz built on a solid conceptual foundation (soul) and jazz built on technical improvisational exercises.

Whether you're building a bitchin' powerpoint presentation or writing a report or building a shelf, getting wrapped up in the flash of the finished product before you even have a foundation is going to fuck you up. It would literally be like building a house without a foundation, in that it would lack a foundation. Metaphorically.

Everything should have a reason to exist. Everything should serve a purpose.

But with that in mind we start wading out into deeper waters. You start hearing "designed by engineers!" thrown around as an indictment of an ugly product. The implication is that someone who is so focused on the function of an item that the form - the way it looks - is ignored.

The speech is a recitation of facts and figures given without regard to the audience; the magazine layout is line after line of information. And ugly. These things lack "art". They're inelegant.

I think that form really should always follow function. It's just a question of defining the function better.

Let's build a toaster. It needs to toast bread.

My first draft of a toaster, based on that design prompt, is a sheet of metal that gets hot when you plug it in. You put the bread down on top of it and then when you think it's done you pull it off. It toasts bread well enough but it doesn't do much else other than burn your fingertips.

Change the design prompt. The toaster needs to toast bread safely. You need to use it without burning your fingers. People need to want it on their counters.

Now the "function" of the toaster has been expanded to include utility and aesthetics. The execution of that function is the difference between an OK toaster and an awesome toaster, but they can both represent good design.

You have to shoot for where the utility line and the aesthetic line intersect.

Unlabeled graphs are bad design, no matter how many colors you use.

It's the same shit from economics. It doesn't even matter which line is which; one is utility and one is beauty. As the perceived beauty of an object increases, it's utility tends to decrease. It's pure art.

If an object possess 100% utility then there may be some kind of inherent elegance in that - but it's probably not going to look very nice.

Good designers will push that orange line all the way out; the beauty and utility will intersect at 100% and you'll have another Eames Desk or Nike swoosh or something.

Everyone else needs to shoot for that middle ground there. Everything well-designed should be as flashy as it is useful - and no more. This is the genesis of elegance and "understated cool" and all of those other difficult to pin down things that people want so desperately but can't quite figure out. They're borne organically from the essence of a thing instead of tacked on at the end.

So says I.

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