Good Design Is Never (Too) Obvious

How Good Design Is Often Meant to Go Unnoticed

Have you ever wondered why design that’s widely considered to be good never stands out too much? And why, on the contrary, bad design stands out like a sore thumb?

The goal of this article is to provide answers to those questions, though first, we’ll need to agree on what ‘good design’ actually is.

Just like anything else, there is a high degree of subjectivity in assessing design, so it is very hard – if not impossible – to draw a clear line separating good and bad design. It is, however, easy for a trained eye to understand to which of those two categories a particular design product belongs.

A company that has produced some of the most timeless pieces of design in recent history, the German home appliances giant Braun, is a textbook example of the type of design that I’ll be talking about in this article.

What Makes Design Good (and Why Good Does Not Equal ‘Good Looking’)

Let’s start by stating that good design is an alternative way of saying good-looking design.

In many areas, ‘good’ does not equal ‘good-looking’, but there is a somewhat rooted belief in certain circles that in design those should almost coincide.

In reality, though, there needs to be a balancing act between the sheer aesthetic value of a product, and its functionality. Being good-looking is not a value in and of itself when talking about design. Design should always bring form and function together.

In the physical world, functional industrial design is often quite plain and uses materials that are not necessarily considered beautiful. Think concrete and metal.

There is, of course, a certain beauty connected to those materials, as the popularity of certain waves of industrial design and architecture proves: brutalism, the controversial architectural movement that makes ample use of concrete and crude shapes, is a testimony to that.

Nowadays, this style of architecture has gained many fans and is often the subject of research as well as many specialized publications.

When it comes to digital products, their visual design can be a contentious issue even if the functionality and user experience are exceptional. Unlike physical objects, the tactile experience of design is absent in the digital realm, so the term ‘feel’ is often used to refer to the perception of a digital product’s design. In other words, a digital product’s appearance holds a different significance than it does in the physical world.

Ultimately, good design – in both the physical and digital realms – refers to something that fits its purpose and surroundings, is appropriate for the needs that it was created for, and fulfills its aesthetic and visual goals. So that’s what I’ll refer to when mentioning good design.

Functional and Fit-to-Purpose: There’s More to Good Design than Sheer Aesthetic

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that good design is more than just something that’s pleasant to look at.

Design that’s truly good is the result of very meticulous work that aims to produce something that is both pleasing to the eye, fulfills its intended function and doesn’t look out of place.

When designers are immersed in the creative process, they resort to using details to their advantage, so that they can achieve to create a design that balances between form and function. And since details aren’t normally what’s most noticeable, you need to look a little closer to see some of them.

To achieve this, a designer usually needs to do plenty of research before the creative process can even begin. Part of what was created following one’s gut feeling does usually make its way to the finished product, yet that alone isn’t normally what will create a truly masterful design, regardless of whether it is a physical or a digital one.

A satisfying, rewarding feeling from consuming a specific design product is the feeling that we’re chasing as end-users and it’s also what designers should strive to create in people.

Everyone’s Saying It, But Not Everybody Is Listening: Less Is, Indeed, More

We’ve all heard the old adage that goes “Less is more”. The famous industrial designer Dieter Rams has put this into practice during his time at Braun and has even published a book titled “Less, but better”, which analyses his time at the German industrial design powerhouse during the company’s heydays.

It can be argued that Braun did in fact spearhead a movement that wanted good design to be subtle, to go unnoticed.

The designs of their products were not bold, by the conventional meaning of the word, but they were beautiful in their simplicity and worked perfectly. Even today, some of these products don’t look particularly dated, and one can clearly see how some of these even inspired contemporary products, like Apple’s iPhone.

But less doesn’t mean that you can just reduce the elements or functions and expect what you’re creating to be automatically better because of that. In fact, there are plenty of cases in which removing elements had exactly this outcome: it made something… less.

You’re Never Too Far from Making a Faux-Pas

The next wrong creative choice is always around the corner when dealing with subtle-yet-smart design. It is extremely easy to fall into cliches and do ‘subtle’ design wrong. Easier than many people can think.

But let’s get a little more concrete here: we’ve mentioned Braun, and today’s equivalent to Braun in the ’70s is undoubtedly Apple.

A testimony to what it means to try and do less, but more only to be left with less, are the countless products that tried hard to be an iPhone but were clearly not.

This reminds us that the same recipe for achieving better with less won’t always work unless you really know what you’re doing, and copying (badly) something that was successful is almost guaranteed to result in a less-than-positive outcome.

Apple products – regardless of what you personally think of them – just work. Both literally and figuratively.

That alone is enough to prove that, despite coming in with the best intentions to deliver ‘good design’, many have failed – and still do.

Take What’s Good, But Do It Smartly

We’ve come to the end of the article, but before closing it is worth mentioning something that will hopefully serve as a reminder to designers operating in all the different niches: whenever you’re working on creating something, by all means, take whatever is good from other designs out there and integrate that into your own creation. But make sure to do it smartly.

Taking something and integrating it into your design without really thinking it through is going to result in something that will be nothing more than a bad copy. That’s not just my opinion but is something that’s been proved time and time again throughout history, so it’s fair to say that this is a sound piece of advice that’s worth sharing as I near the end of this article.

Something else which I want to share before closing in on this piece is that no matter how confident you are in your gut feeling and that first creative burst of energy, you will need to go back and revise your project before you can actually consider it complete. It sounds obvious enough, but often times designers are tricked to believe that they’ve completed something because they put too much trust in that spur of the moment.

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Gianmarco Caprio Avatar

Gianmarco Caprio / Content & Community Manager @ Phase

Content creator, editor and community manager at Phase.