What is design good for anyway and why is there such a fuss about it all the time?

What is design good for anyway? One can see Design everywhere today, that’s one of the reasons why pinning down exactly what it is can be difficult. Even the word design holds different meanings depending on who it is you ask. Most of us can at least tell the difference between something that has been designed and something that hasn’t been. Why do objects that go through the design process and design thinking look a certain way? It’s not purely aesthetic, functional or theoretical – it’s some mix of all three and a bit more still.

“[design is] making things better for people”
– Richard Seymour, Seymourpowell

Bauhaus School – Weaving workshop

Design as we know it today came to life almost a hundred years ago in the workshops of the Bauhaus Dessau (1919 to 1933), Weimar, Germany. The school’s founder, Walter Gropius (1883 – 1969) was guided by a philosophy that for objects to be meaningful they had to be functional and beautiful. He brought together and mixed the disciplines of artists, engineers and craftsmen, something that had never been done before. The workshops saw the production of amazingly thoughtful and well-constructed products. It also started an idea of design that caught on.

“Good design is good business.”
– Thomas J. Watson, CEO of IBM (1914-1956)

Paul Rand, 1981 – 'Eye Bee M' for IBM

Paul Rand, 1981 – ‘Eye Bee M’ for IBM

Today design relates to innumerable fields of practices and industries. In every use of the term design the original philosophy of the Bauhaus school still exists, to merge functionality & beauty. The practical implication of this notion varies from each use, of which there are many. A web designer may create meaning my organizing content into a logical structure and ensure it’s presentation is engaging. A Graphic Designer may create meaning by clearly communicating a complex concept with simplicity and style. These aspects will differ slightly in each application. Designed can be seen as a process that turns ideas into reality, whether it’s a product, advertisement, a house, or process.

Just like the workshops of the Bauhaus Dessau, nearly one hundred years ago, the mix of artistic creativity and a craftsman technical precision still exists. In the 1900’s technical aspects of design would have related to the ability to use a toolset, measures, materials in a masterful way. Today, with computerization, the technical aspects of design have complexified. The craftsman’s toolset is almost entirely digital in the form of specialized computer applications. Measures are endless, defining input and output variables for digital formats and computer hardware. The materials include both real-world and virtual substrates in two and three dimensions. The need to create meaning is as present as always.

“Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.”
– Steve jobs

Elements of the functional aspect have been described as the Design Hierarchy of Needs, to borrow the phrase from the famous Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Visualized as a pyramid the ‘needs’ are aspects of design expressed in order from the bottom up in the following order; Functionality, Reliability, Usability, Proficiency and Creativity.

Design hierarchy or Needs

Design hierarchy or Needs

Creating beauty is as important as the functional aspects of the design. However, defining beauty is highly subjective; there are an infinite intricate and subtle variables to consider. While it’s obvious when something either works or it doesn’t, it’s not quite as easy to gauge the degree of success something has achieved on an aesthetic level. Cultural, religious, societal, economic, gender and other variables affect the subjective notion of beauty.  A talented designer is able to create an aesthetic which resonate on an emotional level for a defined audience.

Watch Why Design Matters – Nike President & CEO Mark Parker

Design has become a term to refer to both a process and a level of refinement. In whatever the application, creating using the process of design thinking has become a reliable method to achieve better, more meaningful results. Design thinking has become extremely common and important as a means to create competitive differentiation.

Design is essential. It’s important not to miss that point, a point people need remind of occasionally. The value added to any system or object by the design process impacts nearly all areas of our lives. Things will work without design, they work better with it and that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Design takes good things and makes them great.

“A lot of trial and error goes into making things look effortless.”
– Bill Moggridge, founder IDEO

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