Is good design a matter of opinion? Is talent what makes a good designer? Is beauty only temporary and subject to permanent change like fashion where we find one thing beautiful today and something completely different the next year? Or are there objective criteria to “good” design?
We have looked at two extraordinary people who should know. One thinks that talent is overrated and the other has gone so far as to develop ten principles of good design. Two opinions that stand in sharp contrast to the conception that talent and creativity are inherent to some people who were simply born that way and have an instinct for beauty and creative ideas on how to implement that instinct in a piece of art or a product.
A matter of opinion?
Sure. To a certain degree. But don’t be fooled. Like with most arts, a majority of people tends to think that creativity and, even more so, talent is something you are born with. These talented people then simply write good music, invent interesting stories and create beautiful designs that are deemed beautiful by all but a small group of dissidents. Is this the way it works?
Not quite. Designers will often smile mildly when being told, after presenting a new work, “Wow, you are really talented”. Because what the impressed person actually is saying is: “I could never do that, I am not as talented as you.”, which implies that is was only talent that spilled out of the designer in the form of a masterpiece. What the artist might respond could be something like: “Thank you, I’ve been trying to create something great since I started playing with Legos- took me long enough, don’t you think?”
Let’s clarify a few things. Of course there are prerequisites. Some people have a higher affinity to maths, some to language, some to logic, to imagining shapes and space in 3D, rhythm, some have a better hearing than others, etc. But discovering these prerequisites as talents is only the first step. Some people for instance say they have never tried playing an instrument because they are convinced they are not talented. The big question is: How do they even know?
Ask a goddess of design
Jessica Walsh, who is working in a design studio with Stefan Sagmeister (who created the famous Rolling Stone logo, you know, the one with the tongue) says: “Talent is overrated: No one pops out of the womb as an awesome designer! Mastering your craft takes a ton of time, and in order to be successful you have to work your ass off and put in the hours. Pursuing something you love helps because you’ll be more likely to put in the time needed to hone your skills and become great.”
This is a very valuable lesson. Of course you will not enjoy being a designer if you have none of the necessary prerequisites. But if you do (you will notice by loving what you are doing) and you had the possibility and freedom to discover your talent and you had the will and stamina to learn and practice and train and fail and continue, then chances are not bad that you will create something great.
Can good design be taught?
Sometimes it may seem as if designers are just good. They just know what looks awesome. They have an intuitive sense of beauty. But how much of design is strategy and reproducible structure? Dieter Rams is a famous name when it comes to industrial design. He spent 40 years at “Braun” and contributed to the company’s international success as their chief design officer. Rams has established a list with 10 principles of good design. Let have a look.
1. Good design is innovative.
(“Design always comes about in connection with innovative technology. How can design be good if the technology is not on the same level?")
2.Good design makes a product useful.
("Good design optimizes usefulness and ignores anything that doesn't serve the purpose or works against it.")
3. Good design is aesthetic.
("Objects you use daily significantly shape your surroundings and your sense of well-being. Only something that is well-made can be beautiful.")
4.Good design makes a product understandable.
("It can make the product 'talk.' Ideally, it explains itself best.")
5. Good design is unobtrusive.
("Products that serve a purpose have the characteristics of a tool. Their design should be neutral and leave room for the user's self-expression.")
6. Good design is honest.
("Honest means not trying to make a product look more innovative, powerful, or valuable than it really is.")
7. Good design is long-lasting.
("In contrast to fashionable design, it lasts many years even in our current throwaway society.")
8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail.
(“Nothing should be arbitrary or left to chance.")
9. Good design is environmentally friendly.
("Design makes an important contribution to preserving the environment.”)
10. Good design is as little design as possible.
Now you know. With the wisdom of Mrs. Walsh, you can keep in mind that you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself and that, if you are not happy with your own design, maybe you just didn’t try often or hard enough.
And with Mr. Rams’ principles in mind, maybe now you will look at products in the store in a different way. Is a product well designed or not? Now you have a checklist. But don’t worry. Good design may be, to some extent, subject to objective criteria.
But beauty still lies in the eye of the beholder.