Before we dive into the theory of design — browse here for more examples of awful design.
Back? It’s important to understand why good design is so important. People make subtle design mistakes when designing everyday objects constantly. As Don Norman says in the Design of Everyday Things:
“Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.”
Most designers don’t design things for people. They design solutions to their own problems (i.e. I want to make attractive things, I want to finish this project etc). When Don wrote DoET he was speaking about kettles, microwaves, and doors. But the same applies to User Interfaces, public transportation systems and the mega structures dotting our urban centers.
Now we see the value of good design. But what is good design? That’s where our German friend Dieter (on the left) will take the floor.
To understand Dieter Rams 10 brilliant design principles, we’ll briefly detour into who Dieter is, and the background of design theory which is the origin of his “flavour” of design.
Dieter Rams is a retired German industrial designer and academic. His consumer products company Braun introduced the world to “functionalist” industrial design. In functionalist design the purpose intended for the object (for instance a razors purpose is to cut hair) is the guiding force behind its design. Every decision about the object (shape, texture, cost etc) is made to maximize the objects capacity to fulfill its intended purpose.
Seems like an obvious decision right? But it isn’t. Take the newer MacBook. Apple decided to remove the very useful USB ports to reduce the thickness of the laptop. They made this decision to make it look better and seem more attractive (aesthetic reasons). Designers sometimes design objects to look like they represent certain identities. Fashion designers do it all the time. Most clothing is about appearance and identity rather than warmth or modesty.
An example of functionalist design is making every aspect of a razor’s design crafted to so it more effectively cuts hair. Function and longevity are secondary considerations in this design “school”.
This concept of functionalist design is pulled from the Vitruvian Man (famously drawn by Leonardo Da Vinci).
The Vitruvian Man is the perfect person because his proportions, muscle tone, facial appearance etc perfectly marry structure, function and aesthetics. These are the three corners of the design pyramid.
As seen on the left, designers have a lot to consider when they’re crafting products, and different designers depending on field, temperament and more value different corners of the pyramid to different degrees. For instance architects value structure over everything else, because a narrow hallway (function) or ugly balcony (aesthetics) are better alternatives than a collapsed floor (structure).
In the later stages of Dieter’s life he began working more on the principles of design, and less on designing consumer products. He’d built an empire and like Ray Dalio, he tried to codified everything he’d learned into a set of cohesive, collectively exhaustive principles. Principles we’re going to explore today.
Dieter believes good design can’t be derivative. It MUST push our understanding of an object forward. We must advance step by step from from Plato’s cave into the daylight with each iteration of some design.
Weighty concepts for designing a kettle, or a lamp. But everything you see that’s been touched by human hands has been designed with purpose, and if we don’t push for progress continuously — we risk stagnation and decline.
Expanding beyond the function of a product, Dieter touches on the role well designed products play in our identities, self perceptions, and the psychological natures of things.
For example people often buy expensive cars to portray themselves as wealthy. They define their self image through their possessions. It seems shallow but we do it continuously. People with Macs report feeling more creative. Or someone with a Dyson vacuum on their wall will feel as though they’re house is cleaner, regardless of the quantity of dust or whatever metric you feel is appropriate for measuring messiness. Good design creates ripples beyond the product.
Purity is attractive. Dieter believes effective designers should cut away the fat of a object until all that’s left is its function. Dieter believes ornamentation (design for designs sake) isn’t aesthetic because it doesn’t lend itself to the function of the object. (He was a consumer products designer, in fashion the “function” often is the aesthetics of the piece of clothing and so an aesthetic design is one that best captures the identity the clothing wearer wishes to represent).
Don Norman in DoET discusses affordances. These are what the design of an object naturally affords.
Think the big and small hole in a pair scissors. Without anyone explaining a thing to you, you’re able to fit your hand perfectly into the handle and begin using them. That’s an example of a pure design with no fat, and one that uses design to explain everything about the product.
Simple objects can explain everything with affordances. But more complex objects like smart phones require what Don calls signifiers to act as signals for how to operate something. Take Apple’s slide to unlock feature on the iPhone. Combining the shadow in the background with the arrow and the little grey box it affords sliding it through the shadowed box so effectively.
But Apple also puts “slide to unlock” text in the box to signify what the grey box does. Incredible design. Apple has IP protection on every aspect of that design. However Apple also fails in many ways to make their phones understandable. As Bruce Toggnazini says in this entertaining article on Apple’s recent design mistakes:
We were not present during the shift from the days of easy-to-use, easy-to-understand products (where Apple could honestly brag that no manual was necessary), to today’s products where no manual is included, but is often necessary.
Take the Swiss Army knife, a classic “well-designed” object. Have you used one recently? Not only are the tools so small that they lose their ability to function as that tool (the scissors are minuscule).
But because of the design of the object — you’re left with no choice but to carry every single tool around with you when you likely only need one or two.
As Apple Designer Jon Ives says:
“simplicity is not the absence of clutter…simplicity is somehow essentially describing the purpose and place of an object and product.”
The Swiss Army knife is designed obtrusively. It’s “over-designed”. Your cars dashboard is usually obtrusive. It has too many things and so we inevitably use virtually none of them.
One of the reasons I love reading on Medium is because it’s just the content and the small sidebar on the left side of the screen. Medium is designed to not intrude on your reading experience. Unlike most reading platforms which have videos, ads, busy sidebars and more distracting you from the reason you’re actually there.
When I buy “inexpensive” (cheap) things off of Amazon, the product pages usually promise long lists of features which are shoehorned in so the product can compete with the more expensive brand name alternatives.
An easy example is an LED light strip I was buying. To compete with more expensive strips the manufacturer included all these unnecessary power bars, adapters and accessories. From reading the reviews however it seems the power bar gets hot almost immediately and nearly set fire to several peoples homes (except the manufacturing was so poor it unplugged itself before the fire got out of hand).
Good design shows you exactly what the object does and nothing more. It doesn’t imply features, quality or longevity it can’t deliver on (fake Rolex’s?).
Those LED light strips are poorly designed (aside from the fire hazard) because they promise the user features they can’t deliver on. The designers lied to me through their design and that’s unethical, and just plain bad, design.
H&M engages in throw away design. They chase trends, encourage people to replace still functioning products and encourage short term consumerism.
Good design withstands trends. It’s like blog content. You want it to be evergreen — which lasts for years and years because it covers universal topics that are always relevant.
Plastic water bottles are poorly designed. They’re also cheap, and convenient. They function properly and balance structure, function and to some extent aesthetics. Yet they’re floating in our oceans and littering our landfills. Why?
It’s because they’re well designed for today, but not for tomorrow. But because they’re so cheap — people can replace them again, and again, and again perpetually using the “same” water bottle (ala Plato’s ideal form) but in a new physical permutation. Good design withstands the withering effects of time, fading taste, and short attention spans.
Have you ever noticed some objects are 90% well-designed. Most details balance function, structure and aesthetics wonderfully. It suits your identity and represents you well to others.
But the designers mess up on some seemingly trivial detail which derails the whole object.
For instance I recently bought a bicycle pump which was 90% perfect. It filled my bike tires great, it was easy to use, attractive, matched my biking shorts and jersey. It was almost perfect.
Except the designers used cheap plastic to secure the tube, which snapped almost immediately. Now the pump won’t snap onto my tire properly and the pump doesn’t function anymore.
Tying back into the design longevity point about H&M and water bottles. Good design minimizes resource use all throughout its supply chain. Excessive plastic packaging, inefficient manufacturing (for instance baby carrots), wasted human labour. All of this reeks of someone designing something poorly.
One reason is because we’re all designers. Every one of us identifies problems, brainstorms remedies, and implements some solution which meets our desired criteria. This is design. It’s solving meaningful problems, and we all do it professionally, personally and socially. We design solutions to our friends painful break-ups. We design methods for our kids to get to karate and have time to study. Design is in every object, plan or action taken by humanity.
But most people don’t recognize that and we end up with short sighted plastic bottles, wasteful packaging, poor quality goods which need to be replaced endlessly, and environmentally destructive inputs (metals, oil, gas) which are gathered in destructive ways.
We’re all guilty of this and perhaps recognizing the designer in all of us, will lead people to designing better solutions to the myriad of problems we’re constantly confronted with.
This brings us to Dieter’s last design principle. Good design is as little “design” as possible.
Ornamentation, conflicting goals (finish the job quick and cheap, and easily), short sighted behaviour, social motivators (status, wealth, power), and greed cause us to over-design the world around us and leads to the objects around us often causing infuriation, frustration and lead to us asking ourselves with bemused expressions “who possibly designed this?”
Look in the mirror and see the designer you are. Recognize as you go through your life the little problems that come up, and how you naturally design solutions to them (of varying effectiveness).
Once you’re aware of that, the design principles will suddenly all make sense and you’ll find yourself creating more effective, resource efficient, and beautiful solutions that will ripple to the world around you, and make things better for everyone.