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Good design, bad design. What is design even?

Dear 25 year old me,

One of the questions that I get asked regularly is, “What’s the difference between good design and bad design?”. I prefer to answer this question by first asking another question;

What do you believe design is?

Interestingly, I find that a lot of people struggle to define what they believe design actually is. In fact, dear reader, take a quick moment right now to answer it yourself! What do you think?

I was sitting in a cafe while drafting this post and literally turned and asked five people around me this exact question throughout the day. They kindly paused their coffee-sipping and cake-eating to respond.

“Making ordinary things more attractive through things like colours, effects, fonts and layout” was the general response.

Some went on to discuss their thoughts in more depth.

“Intelligent pre-planning before construction”
“Structuring an idea to meet a goal”
“Making things more functional in a visual way”
“Creating an attractive medium to achieve a pre-determined goal.”

These were all fascinating responses, considering that these impromptu interviewees aren’t even in the creative industry (thank you, dear participants!). I was very intrigued at this point and decided to broaden my scope of interviewees and ask a few fellow industry peers their thoughts via twitter as well.

Tweet collage

“At it’s best? Problem solving”
@stringy

“Eye candy” (though I think this one was a little tongue in cheek, perhaps! :) )
@ashulz

“It’s work to change current situations into preferred ones”
@gbissett

Tweet collage

“Purposeful creation”
@martyfreer

“At it’s best, design is human”
@troytkr

“Solving problems”
– @sandysandy

“Design is defining and solving a problem, beautifully”
@richieparker

These were all such interesting responses and certainly all very pertinent. It got me to pondering further on it. Perhaps design isn’t just the one thing that can be pinpointed because it’s so driven by context, but instead a culmination of much, much more.

My personal take on it is that design is a creative, deliberate, considered and clever approach to a problem — a proof of concept or a finished output — working towards an outcome that can enhance the human experience. When done well, it can be extremely powerful whether it be through creating social change or building human connections.

Beyond the aesthetics of visual design that stems from the effective application of the core design principles, it’s design thinking which is what enables the design to be successful.

Design thinking adds meaning and context to the vessel, providing it with a purpose to exist.

Defining good design then perhaps is about whether it achieves the purpose that it set out to achieve. However, there are so many more facets to what defines good design. I’ve read some great and inspiring articles all around discussing all the things to consider, along with a plethora of components that form it.

Here are some of the main ingredients that I believe are a starting point to forming a good design.

1. Good design pays attention.

I find that the best designs are those built with empathy in mind, where the designers have truly understood and designed for their end users. In these cases, the designer has actively listened, identified and provided a solution to what the perceived problem was.

The attention is then translated into the detail of each and every element that forms the concept. It’s these details that are the one-percenters that turn something ordinary into something amazing.

Good design should keep breathing by continuing to listen, learn and adapt as needed.

2. Good design is thoughtful.

There’s a lot to be said about designing with inclusiveness in mind and I believe that there’s no reason that the world shouldn’t just be designed for everyone.
Where possible, let’s recognise and design for “edge cases”. Let’s consider the things that don’t work well and make the decision to no longer accept these as the norm.

Design better experiences for all.

Thoughtful design should be shared. Help each other out, seek out ways to improve and give feedback to others, then learn from each other and grow.

3. Good design informs.

The design should be the vehicle to help deliver the message to the end user with the path of least resistance. It should be intuitive and clear so that there’s no confusion.
Reduce the cognitive load by making everything clear and easy to understand.

4. Good design delights.

Back to the statement about not accepting things as they are just because that’s the way they are.

Is there a better way to approach something? How can design delight? Designers — use it yourself, clear out your bias and personal preferences, speak to other users and listen to what they have to say. Personalise the experience, bring out pleasant surprises along the way and finishing touches that set the user on a journey which will leave them wanting to come back for more.

It’s possible! It just takes a little more effort.

5. Good design communicates.

All designs should have a clear purpose and message to be communicated, in some way, shape or form. Aim to be the conduit between the communicator and the end user, encouraging genuine connection and engagement between the two parties.

6. Good design is invisible.

In this great read, Oliver Reichenstein discusses the concept of invisible design. If the message and the content are delivered effectively, the design will go unnoticed and therefore, it will have achieved it’s objective.

Often, people will be quick to notice unpleasant experiences and will happily discuss frustrating experiences. This isn’t generally the case for the good experiences.

It’s not to say that if a design is noticed then it makes it bad! It’s simple. Good designs will induce delight, while bad designs will create frustration. Aim for the former, not the latter.

7. Good design just feels right.

I’m just going to leave this here. Good design will pull all of it — the design theory, the purpose, and the objectives- together into something that is whole.

When it’s truly good, it’ll simply feel.. right.

I’m barely scratching the surface with this and can’t wait to write more on the topic — there are so many other factors that come into play and each project will have it’s own challenges.

This article by Anders Toxboe was a great read too.

I’d love to hear from others on what their thoughts are!

Let’s share notes, people.

Until next time,
Patima x