The 10 Principles of Good Design

Gone are the days of home cooking, timeliness fashion, and handcrafted tables. The modern world is instead saturated with fast food, trendy clothing, and build-it-yourself plywood furniture. People buy what’s cheap and convenient, gradually filling their homes with poorly-built junk. Everywhere we look, there are too many unnecessary things.

I’m currently taking a online course exploring Human-Center Design and have been thinking about how we might better address the core needs of society, as well as the aspects of design that make an object favorable. I’ve been reading and watching some interviews with Dieter Rams, an innovative designer who achieved recognition through the 1960s-70s. He strove to create long-lasting products that are well-built with neutral designs that won’t go out of style. Rams summarized his design philosophy 50 years ago in 10 points, which are still widely accepted today.

The 10 Principles of Good Design

1. Good design is innovative

Whether crafting a chair, website or a hair dryer, design must push our understanding of an object forward. Each new iteration of a design should re-imagine the object, considering both new resources and evolving human needs. If we don’t demand progress, we risk stagnation and decline.

A prime example of innovative design is the Dyson bladeless fan, which completely reinvents the classic design of the century-old caged blade contraption. The new take offers improved safety, ease of cleaning, and a low-profile modern aesthetic.

“A designer is an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist, and evolutionary strategist.” –Buckminster Fuller

2. Good design makes a product useful

People buy products to be used. However, in addition to function, these products must also satisfy psychological and aesthetic needs. Well-designed products play a part in our identifies, self-perceptions, and our status in society. People define their self-image through their large homes, luxury cars, designer clothing, and high-end kitchen appliances.

A single bachelor may buy an expensive car to portray himself as wealthy, whereas a new mom might purchase a minivan for its safety features. People who use Apple products report feeling more creative than those on personal computers, while tinkerers may prefer building their own custom machines. Good designs create ripples that extend beyond the product itself.

“People ignore designs that ignore people” –Frank Chimero

3. Good design is aesthetic

The products we use everyday affect our person and well-being, so the aesthetic quality of a product is integral. The best designs trim the fat, removing unnecessary ornamentation and stripping an object down to its function. These well-executed and intuitive objects are often the most beautiful.

Consider a pair of scissors with both a large hole and a smaller hole. Without an explanation, you’re able to fit your hand perfectly into the handle and begin using them. The design of the scissors explains everything you need to know about the product. Any additional bells and whistles would detract from the usability of the scissors.

“A designer is a planner with an aesthetic sense.”
–Bruno Munari

4. Good design makes a product understandable

Have you ever purchased a new item, only to spend the first frustrating hour trying to figure out how it works? If so, that item was poorly designed. A product should be self-explanatory, communicating its structure and purpose.

Simple objects, like a pencil, can explain everything with affordance. However, more complex objects, like smart phones, requires obvious signals on how to operate. Take the iPhone’s slide to unlock feature, which combines the shadow in the background with an arrow directing even a novice on how to use the feature. Apple even added “slide to unlock” text to make the design fool-proof.

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” –Steve Jobs

5. Good design is unobtrusive

Products are traditionally designed to fulfill a purpose and serve as tools. Products design should be neutral and restrained, leaving room for the user’s self-expression. Products should not be considered decorative objects nor works of art.

Have ever accidentally turned up volume instead of the air conditioning in your car? Car dashboards are filled with buttons and knobs, but we inevitably only use a select few. Similarly, the Swiss Army knife is outfitted with a dozen small tools, which are so small that they lose their ability to function. Yet, the design requires that you carry every tool with you, instead of the one or two you might actually need.

“Good design is like a refrigerator—when it works, no one notices, but when it doesn’t, it sure stinks.” –Irene Au

6. Good design is honest

A product should not be portrayed as more innovative, powerful, or valuable than it actually is. Good design does not manipulate the consumer with promises that can’t be kept, but rather aligns with the materials used and is straightforward about its purpose.

A good coffee pot is made of stainless steel, not cheap plastic or wax paper. A coffee pot should be made of materials that support the heat and liquids that are put through it, and should aim for nothing more than its intended purpose: to make a cup of coffee.

7. Good design is long lasting

It avoids trends styles and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashion design, well-designed products last many years–even in today’s throwaway society. The well-built and aesthetically neutral products discourage people from replacing functional products.

The antithesis of good design is the creation of objects well designed for today, but not for tomorrow. Some example include the fast fashion at H&M and plastic water bottles, which ultimately end up filling our oceans and landfills unnecessarily. On the other hand, I have a gorgeous 15-year-old Copenhagen bed which is still sold (and popular) over a decade later.

“If you do it right, it will last forever.” –Massimo Vignelli

8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail

The best products perfectly balance function, structure, and aesthetics. When designing, nothing can be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the user, and messing up on one seemingly trivial detail could compromise the entire object.

I ordered a glass tea infusion tumbler on Kickstarter a few years ago. It was beautiful and clever, yet there was one major flaw. When the tumbler was tipped upside down, per the design, allowing the hot water to steep in the strainer attached to the lid, hot water quickly seeped out. Though a small detail in the full design, the leak prevented the product from achieving its intended purpose–steeping tea.

“The role of the designer is that of a good, thoughtful host anticipating the needs of his guests” –Charles Eames

9. Good design is environmentally friendly

Design can make an important contribution to the preservation of the environment, supporting the conservation of resources and minimization of pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product. Humans habitually identify problems, devise remedies, and implement appropriate solutions. We all solve meaningful problems in our own lives–we’re all designers, in that regard.

Many design choices are shortsighted, utilizing excessive plastic packaging, inefficient manufacturing, and wasted human labor. Do you remember ordering a book online and receiving a massive box filled with the small book and a roomful of packing peanuts? Compare that to the appropriately-sized boxes and air pillows in recent Amazon shipments. There is still waste, but we’re making progress towards better soltions.

“Great design is a multi-layered relationship between human life and its environment.” –Naoto Fukasawa

10. Good design is as little design as possible

Objects should be pure and simple, devoid of non-essentials. Designers should adopt the mantra “less, but better” and concentrate solely on the essential aspects of the object. We must aim to avoid ornamentation, conflicting goals, short-sighted behavior, social motivators, and greed.

Over-designed objects often lead to frustration. When you have 15 separate options for toothbrush heads or 20 buttons on the massage chair, how do you know which one to choose? Psychology studies have shown that people like have options, but become overwhelmed when there are more than three to choose from. When you eliminate excess, you’ll create more effective, efficient, and beautiful solutions that will benefit everyone.

“Make it simple, but significant.”

–Don Draper

 How does this apply to non-designers?

I know what you’re thinking: “I’m not a designer, so what does it matter?” The thing is, we’re all the designers of our lives. We leave our mark when we interact with others, submit projects at work, post to social media, or Macgyver a solution to the leaky faucet.

In a world where “everything has been done before,” we must be willing to take risks in our lives, whether going on a first date, starting a new career at age 35, or launching a product you’ve been dreaming up for years.

We’re finally beginning to move away from the “move fast and break things” era towards the realization that the stakes are exponentially rising and its integral to consider the user. As consumers, our dollar dictates which companies thrive and which die, so consider which brands and products you want to support.

As we move towards an ever more digital future, we need to be transparent and consider the broad consequences of our choices. The smartphone is literally changing people’s brains–if phone designers don’t make changes to the product, we must have the courage to change our personal behaviors.

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