i saw design: thoughts on the meaning of good design

Several years ago, Metropolis Magazine asked a good and timely question: what is good design? The question is personally interesting not only because it indulges my propensity to pontificate, but also because it relates to the work I do and the industry I work in. And so, Peter Hall’s view that design is an argument. To quote:

Many objects are designed not to be useful but to make an argument. And my contention is that every object is an argument of some sort, and its strength or weakness as an argument is a good guide to its value. The theorist Richard Buchanan once identified three rhetorical characteristics of a product’s design: Its logos, or technological reasoning, is the clarity of its ­function—the way in which, say, a spoon is an argument for getting food from the plate to the mouth, or a clamshell shape suggests that the cell phone needs to be opened to be used. Its ethos, or character, is how it reflects its maker; a Dieter Rams–designed Braun product conveys an unobtrusive, efficient quality. Its pathos, or emotion, is how it persuades its potential users that it is desirable and useful to them—its sexiness, if you like.
But the most valuable effect of considering an object as an argument is that it allows us to look under the rhetorical hood and consider it not as an inevitable or neutral invention but as something that embodies a point of view.

Hall then goes on to offer examples, such as the iPod as an argument for how we should consume music instead of merely a music-playing device and the Model-T as argument for fossil-fueled transportation.
It’s an interesting perspective. Yet it strikes me as overly rhetorical, even problematic as it uses one vague concept (“argument”) to define another. And when Hall suggests that the implied timelessness of the traditional notion of “good design” glosses over the fact that problems are “too big and slippery to stamp or fix,” his argument in favour of design-as-an-argument risk even more puffery, since it is by no means philosophically necessary that any act of design can, or should be, divorced from its (historical) context.

The biggest shortcoming of defining design as an argument is that it ultimately fails to distinguish the activity of design from other activities. Hall writes:

Viewing designs as arguments frees us from the art world’s tendency to evaluate on aesthetic criteria alone. It insists on contextual evaluation: design is not just about how a thing looks or how it works; it is also about the assumptions on which it rests.

But can’t we say that art is an argument in favour of a particular insight into the human condition, that in art, aesthetics is the medium of communication? If we grant that art is also an argument, that, in fact, any action is an argument promoting a certain set of assumptions, then we are left with the question as to how to distinguish design from any other activity (such as art).

Suppose that, instead, we create a model based on the elements of form, function (how something works), and purpose (i.e. the goal). A dialectic of these elements leads to a clear and distinct definition:

Design is the purposeful synthesis of form and function. 

Purposeful, because design is an intentional act, which distinguishes it from the non-conscious, non-volitional occurrence of creation in nature. It a human act.

A synthesis, because it is a dialectic of function (thesis) and form (anti-thesis).

(By implication…

Form without function or purpose is ornament. One could argue that the aesthetic is its own purpose, which would be fine, but not really saying much at all.

Form without function but with purpose is art.

Function with purpose but without form is engineering, although it’s more accurate to say that the form arises directly out of the function. You can make a tool that solves a problem, but unless its form is accounted for it might unusable in other important ways.

But I digress.)

The next question it the question raised by Hall, namely, what is good design? Hall offers a list:

  • Good Is Sustainable
  • Good Is Accessible
  • Good Is Functional
  • Good Is Well Made 
  • Good Is Emotionally Resonant
  • Good Is Enduring
  • Good Is Socially Beneficial
  • Good Is Beautiful
  • Good Is Ergonomic
  • Good Is Affordable

And it’s a good list, although relative. A space shuttle is beautiful, well made, socially beneficial, emotionally resonant, and so on…but affordable it is not. (Or, rather, affordable is relative; the government can afford it, but you and I can’t.) Hall acknowledges the problem …

No argument could meet all these criteria, but it might satisfy a few. More to the point, a loose framework gets us beyond the problem of labeling design as good or bad, or seeing problems as solvable. There are no solutions to design problems. There are only responses in the form of arguments.

… and takes us right back to the shortcomings of viewing design as an argument.

I think the answer to what constitutes good design can be simple and straightforward: good design is design that solves problems while eliminating, or minimizing, new problems that arise out from the solution. Because of course there are solutions to design problems. Scissors are the solution to the design problem of cutting paper. Cars are the design solution to the problem of high-speed mobility. But the extent to which a solution is a good design depends on how few problems are created as a result of the design. The combustion engine, for example, is a good engineering design to propel cars, yet it creates the problems of fossil-fuel dependency and pollution. An electric motor solves this problem while accomplishing the same goal, yet there is the problem of battery charging and disposal. This means that the good design isn’t necessarily the result of an absolute measure, but a relative measure. And it takes into account all the good things Hall enumerates, and perhaps more. An ergonomic chair is a better design than a simple chair that consists of a flat seat and flat backrest. A biodegradable fork made from natural, non-toxic materials is a better design than a plastic fork.

Putting it all together:

Design is the purposeful synthesis of form and function in a way that solves a problem while minimizing the creation of new problems.

What do you think?

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