The Goodness of Good Design
If, like me, you have raised an endlessly curious child, you know how often the simplest questions lead to profound subjects. Conversely, whether adults or child, seemingly complex questions often lead to straightforward but significant answers. Questions such as What is good design?
We know it when we see it. Despite some recent grumbles , Apple retains popular respected for its legacy of design. Similarly with Nordic furniture, Indian textiles, Italian cars, or Japanese architecture: we recognize them all for fine design.
But what is good here? For me, Marty Neumeier (who founded the magazine Critique in the 1990s) said it best: Good design exhibits virtues.
Good design exhibits virtues. (Marty Neumeier)
Good design has virtues which we also recognize in people we admire. The best will be honest, restrained, generous, empathetic and forgiving.
How can a design be honest? Perhaps turn the question round - how would a design mislead you? Sadly, examples of dishonest design flourish on the web today, often called dark patterns. You may have noticed (or been tricked by) internet adverts which appear on seemingly ordinary pages, but without borders, so users have difficulty knowing where real content ends and the ad begins. The ads’ navigation buttons trick you into visiting the advertisers web site. That may be clever design, but it’s not good.
You may easily spot a dishonest design, but restraint can be tricky to define. Restrained can be strikingly beautiful, but modest too. In the same way, a good design prefers restraint: not showing off all its features with buttons and options; not trying to grab your attention, but still drawing in your interest. The Apple products and Scandinavian furniture mentioned earlier favour almost minimalist design. Fabrics may look gorgeously decorative, but show at their best when worn in the simplest, most graceful ways.
When building software, it is tempting to make every feature and option visible to the user at once: to show off the power and versatility of your application. However, such extravagance can lead to a complex and confusing user experience. A restrained design proves simpler to work with and learn, offering only features the user needs in their current working context. The hauntingly lovely game, Monument Valley by ustwo, presents a masterclass in restrained design, gradually disclosing its complexity with sensitive interactions that become engrossing.
A modest software design may not make all its features obvious at once. However, a good design will also be generous, offering the user more functionality than they may expect. The secret lies in balancing these virtues. When I choose to print a document, many applications offer the ability to export to Adobe PDF format instead. They know users may not want to literally print a document, but rather want an output which cannot be edited. A few years ago, to create a PDF file required separate, specialized, and rather costly programs. Today, generous applications and even operating systems include this feature naturally. Save to PDF may not need a distracting toolbar icon or a confusing menu item: it may simply appear as an option when printing. Indeed, some apps offer PDF export as the environmentally conscious default with wasteful printing as the secondary option.
We all make mistakes. Embarrassing, for sure, but they can also do real damage. Forgiving software understands we are only human. The Undo option represents a simple, but powerful, example of our software making allowances for our clumsiness. Undo Send for email has probably saved several careers. Email apps now typically ask if you really want to Reply All to a mailing list. I have been grateful for such a forgiving feature several times. On Twitter, if you unsend a direct message it is deleted from the recipient’s feed, even if they have read it and replied to it.
For thoughts about empathetic design, I always turn to the design mentor and trainer Indi Young whose books and training courses emphasise deep listening. Her goal is to help organizations embrace ambiguity and treat humans as complex beings with agency.
As I said, often the simplest questions are the most profound. Discussing this article, a very traditionally-minded Thai friend asked me, a little teasingly: If good design has virtues, does good design therefore respect its elders? But the more I thought about it, the more I realised the answer is surely yes. Good design does not reject former models just for the sake of being new: best practice knows where it comes from. Good design learns from the past and respects the most compelling aspects of previous work.
You will surely think of other virtues I have not included. Try it as a thought experiment. I expect you will find that, however you look at it, good design is simply good.
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