You say to-may-to; I say to-mah-to. You say good; I say what?

The ever-elusive question: How to define good design?

I’ll never claim to be the authority on this subject, but I do occasionally (okay, more like often) take umbrage with the ways in which good design is defined or determined.

One could say I’m not easily impressed:

Aesthetically beautiful?  Not enough.  Functional?  Not enough.  Thought provoking?  Getting closer.

What does it take to really, truly make a good design?  I don’t personally believe an object, building, or graphic piece must embody all the typical good-defining attributes to be considered good, but it certainly has to have a hefty amount of substance.  Serious substance will get me to look deeper, to think a little harder, to perhaps question the validity of a design.  And that, to me, is often what makes a design at least verging on good.

But in truth, I’m not all that fond of labeling design—or anything else for that matter—good or bad.  Good is relative; bad is relative.  All is relative!

Certainly there are designs that better address a set of criteria we may determine for evaluating their goodness, but [yes, there’s always a but with me] again, isn’t it all relative?

And this is where I can profess my love for design: We can argue about good, bad, or indifference until the end of time, and probably not come up with a straight answer.  If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that I love a good argument.  Not to mention, I prefer questions over answers.

After all the end-of-year and end-of-decade lists of best/worst everything, I had to really ponder this idea of best and worst, good and bad.  How does this label get determined?  Well, the truth is, anyone can publish a best and worst list—but what does that actually mean?

For the sake of argument, I’d like to agree with Peter Hall’s stance that design is in essence about argument:

“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…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.  The iPod may seem like an innocuous music-playing device, but in fact it is an argument about how we should navigate, purchase, download, and listen to sound.”

The argument that design is inherently about a problem/solution relationship is often used and often valid, though this can be a slippery slope as well.  As times change, problems change.  And therefore, solutions must change.  So while designs are often revered for being good due to their longevity or timelessness, it’s not always that simple.  And dare I say that some of the best design minds were simply ahead of their time?  While their designs might not have been extremely useful at the time of their creation, they may have inspired forward thinking, change, progression, and questions—perhaps in the form of an argument.  I can refer back to Ledoux and Boullée as architectural visionaries referenced in a previous post.  This is just the type of argument I am speaking of.  It is a questioning and challenging of the status quo.

Perhaps rather than make a statement, a good design should pose a question—forcing the critical thinking portions of our brains to fire into action.  Something that is merely beautiful, functional, and readily accepted doesn’t easily fit this profile.  So does that make it good?  Or bad?  Hmmm.

Now let’s argue; shall we?


One response to “You say to-may-to; I say to-mah-to. You say good; I say what?

  1. i always imagine a venn-diagram of two overlapping regions: USE and DESIRE. the area of the overlap then becomes ‘good design’.
    too simple? yeah, probably…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s