The Definition of Good Design

A recent Globe and Mail article on Michalange Panzini’s Solair chair has led me into questioning the definition of a good design.  The definition of good design has been an ongoing debate since I can even remember and of course, the idea of a good design varies from person to person, which evolves according to the social changes.  As the mass public becomes more design savvy, good design becomes an attractive selling point.

So what exactly is good design? According to Metropolis’s March 09 issue, a good design lives up to the following criteria’s (in no specific order):

1.)  Sustainable

2.)  Accessible

3.)  Ergonomics

4.)  Functional

5.)  Well Made

6.)  Beautiful

7.)  Socially Beneficial

8.)  Affordable

9.)  Enduring

10.)  Emotionally Resonant

Sustainability is a huge thing nowadays; being sustainable is like being politically correct.  One big misconception from the general public is that sustainability is just about recycle (sorry to pop your bubble but recycling is just 1 part of the sustainable cycle).  The cycle goes above and beyond recycling where every step within the production process is just as important.  The stages include the raw material extraction (how its harvested and processed), the production (how its assembled together), the packaging (how much packaging/protection does it need), the transportation (how far does it need to be shipped) and it’s end-of-life (how long is this product going to last, where does it go after its initial purpose has been achieved?).  If the environmental factor has been considered throughout the making of the product, then voila, you have a product that does little harm to the environment.

Next off is accessibility.  This is not new news to anyone who’s been following different trend analysis that the global demographic is aging.  Yes, we, as a society, are getting old and as a result, different services and products need to cater to the needs of this emerging market.  While designing a product or service, it’s important to remember to design for everyone, meaning the physical strengths of a 9 year old as well as the comprehension level of a 1 year old has been considered.  A great design should be inclusive and can adapt to the needs of individuals, allowing as much portion of the population to be its user.  If you have a design that only works with only 1 person then Houston, we have a problem.

Ergonomics can be a tricky one to tackle since it can get pretty technical and statistical.  Traditionally speaking, ergonomics refers to how well the object physically interacts with/fits to the user and the health benefits from using it (for example, Herman Miller’s Aaron Chair has been known for its comfort and its ability to maintain a good posture for its user over a long period of time).  In order for a product to be ergonomical, the object itself has to be usable in the first place.  If you have to hurdle across a bunch of obstacles to perform the task (like opening the lid of spaghetti sauce jar which has a pop up seal) then the product clearly needs to be ergonomically re-evaluated (there’s always a solution to make life easier).

The functionality of a product as well as how well made an object is comes hand in hand.  It’s as simple as this; if an object is well made (it’s not falling apart and the rotational parts are not stuck) then it’ll have no problem in performing its designated task (meaning it works).  Besides from accomplishing the task, there’s also the question of practicality (is this object truly necessary?).  There are products out in the market that does a certain task well but aren’t absolutely needed in our daily lives.  These products are known as Chindogus in Japan, objects that are theoretically functional (and sounds great) but aren’t practical at all.

The aesthetics of an object (for many people) is THE determining factor of the design.  If its not beautiful then no one would desire it.  But yet again beauty is different as we all have exquisite tastes and preferences, which changes along with the trend.  You might be thinking, okay, if the trend changes and what’s considered as pretty is no longer the same then what makes it a good design?  The answer would be to design something that’s timeless.  Timeless objects are always in trend no matter what as its physical appearance takes on a simplistic approach (it’s like having a little black dress in the wardrobe where it can be worn in many different ways for various occasions).  If the product is timeless then there’s no urge for a replacement (unless it breaks down, now that’s another story).

The truth is, not all products and services in the consumer market are socially beneficial; in fact, many aren’t.  Take a simple service like the floral industry for example.  It may seem like this is a sustainable service that does little harm since the physical product (the flowers) itself can be composed, leaving behind little waste but the truth is, its not as pretty as you think it is.  These flowers are mostly shipped from third world countries where under-paid labors are used to harvest the flowers under toxic environment.  A socially beneficial product doesn’t only benefit the end users (like designs for the 99% of the world), it also benefits those who are apart of the production process as well as the community at large.

A good design should be affordable by all.  Designers are the parents of the design where they’d want their ‘baby’ to have as much impact (in a positive way) as it can.  If the pricing of the product is set to a point where only a small percentage of people can afford then the purpose of benefiting the community have been defeated.

As mentioned before, a good product should be well built and functional.  If the product is well built then it should be able to endure years of abuse (note that I’m not trying to encourage anyone to abuse anything just to test if its well made).  Emotions are what make us humans; we tend to develop feelings for things that we accumulate over the years.  It’s most likely that we’d develop particular memories and add sentimental values towards these objects.  These added values will extend the life of the physical objects, making the piece itself a timeless memorial.

Any product can be considered a good design; it’s just a matter of what you define a good design as (good design doesn’t have to be a designer item, it can be designed by anyone with a good solution).  The above criteria’s of a good design are just guidelines designers should keep in mind while developing a new product or service.  There will always be a trade-off in a design here it fails in one category while excelling in others.  The reality is, nothing is perfect.  Imperfection is what drives designer to come up with better solutions.  These improvements/refinements will be known for its great design in the future as a greater range of users appreciates the product/service.

– Chun-Lam


4 thoughts on “The Definition of Good Design

  1. I wish more people would think about good design, and be more discriminating about what they buy. Then artisans (and manufacturers too!) would concentrate on producing quality, and there would be less incentive to mass-produce articles that do not last, and don’t even do their job well.

    • Thanks for stopping by my blog, I’m also a guest contributor for so you can check out that site as well if I haven’t post any entries that week.

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