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What is “Good Design”?

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

The following question I have been asked frequently is: “What is good design?”, my response has always been a bland and generic version of: a basic idea that is well planned, properly developed and efficiently executed. That is until my 8 year old son, Jackson, posed me the same question last week. So, instead of regurgitating the same response, I decided to dig a little deeper. Curious to find out more, I decided to gain new insight and perspective from a few pioneers within the design profession, therefore I Googled it.

The very first quote that I came across was “Simple is Good”, from the late, great puppeteer and cartoonist, Jim Henson. Okay, I can respect that. A good start, but that still doesn’t quite paint the full picture for me.

As my research continued, I came across a quote from the late American architect Louis Khan, known for monumental and monolithic architecture. He stated, “Design is not making beauty, beauty emerges from selection, affinities, integration, love.” So in essence Mr. Khan, love is behind all great design? Hmmmm, there is probably a lot of truth to that, but that still doesn’t fully resonate with me.

Furthermore, I decided to uncover the thoughts of my favorite postmodernist American architect, Philip Johnson. “All architecture is shelter, all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space.” I felt a little tingle in my body reading those words. As I came to the realize that it’s not the box, but what goes into and around that box helps to stimulate the senses of the individuals who utilize that box. Now, that’s beginning to sound like purposeful intent.

Pondering Mr. Johnson’s words a while longer, I thought, there are other arenas besides architecture that showcase good design. What about the fashion industry? My search unveiled fashion icon, Isaac Mizrahi who once commented, “This is what I like about being a designer: You can’t really get it until you see it.” I can truly appreciate and relate to this sentiment. Under most designer’s drafting tables you will probably see wadded up balls of sketch paper of previous design iterations that just didn’t seem to work. But then, inevitably, there is that ‘Ah Ha’ moment where, like Mizrahi said “you can’t really get it until you see it”, all of those ideas come together and fit into that perfect creation that the designer had envisioned.

Things were starting to become much clearer for me, but I wanted to find one more perspective for inspiration about design. Then I look down at the computer I am using and see the Apple logo. Hmm, I wonder if Steve Jobs had anything profound to say about design? “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.“ Well there you have it, molded into the perfect form reminiscent of so many of the gadgets that Jobs developed, the perfect response to the question.

The next day I ask my son to come into the room. I ask him, do you remember that question you asked me the other day: “What is good design?” With a wondering mind and an attention span of any 8 year old, he looked at me with a blank stare as to say, “What the heck are you talking about Dad?”. So I decided to answer the question for him, but mostly out of my own curiosity, anyway. Good design originates from a simple idea based on need, embodies beauty, and stimulates the senses, while solving the problem……and you will know it when you see it.

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