Design that lasts

We usually believe «good design» to be the single peak, the only positive pole as opposed to «bad design». But what if there are several different poles of good design?

In fact, the meaning behind the expression «good design» is really ambiguous, even if we leave aside the question of design definitions. Is good design akin to good cleaning? I mean, is it something about just putting things to their proper places and getting rid of noise? Or maybe it means being an artist, not a mere technician? Doesn’t good design also mean creating something that lasts, something people will talk about?

Let’s compare a propaganda poster and a railroad ticket. The goal of the poster is to persuade by conveying a clearly defined meaning. The goal of the ticket is simply to document. While the poster asks for emotional involvement and response, the ticket doesn’t ask for anything. As emotions rule our decisions, emotional experience is crucial for persuasive design. As emotions distract when the decision is already made or simply is not needed, usability becomes more important for other kinds of design.

My point is that on one pole, like with the poster, the form becomes the content and the emotional experience matters the most, while on another pole, like with the ticket, the content becomes the form and what really matters is pure usability. Both poles still can be called good design. But the one where meaning matters can also be good in another sense, as something people will talk about — as a social object, if we borrow the term from Hugh McLeod.

If we now compare our propaganda poster with a dictionary instead of a railroad ticket, we see one more difference —obviously, it is the level of informational complexity. The more complex and structured the information, the less chances are left for emotional experience and the more is the need for usability. The design of complex information systems is rather engineering, and this is yet another pole of good design.

And finally, if we replace the dictionary with a novel full of complex ideas, we see one more dimension of good design: do not distract attention from the higher levels of perception and thinking. That’s why the design of a such a books is usually much drier than, say, the design of an annual report full of dry facts. And paradoxically, the design of an annual report has more chances of becoming a social object.

So, the four poles of good design are:

  • Social objects (persuasive with simple meaning, intense but simple emotions, minimum of information)
  • Usable objects (no need for persuasion, simple meaning, low emotions, low information)
  • Complex information systems (simple meaning, low emotions, high volumes of information)
  • Complex semantic systems (higher-level thinking, complex emotions and meaning)

Of course we can think of further combinations of parameters referring to yet another kinds of design. But the only one of them, namely social objects, can pretend to be a sort of art, a special kind of design that lasts. Its distinctive features can also be used as the criteria for making design more viral:

  1. Easy emotional involvement.
  2. Simple and unambiguous meaning.
  3. The lowest possible volume and the best possible organisation of information.

I am sure that those criteria may be helpful even in the cases when they can’t be fully met, i.e. with railroad tickets and dictionaries. By reducing complexity and adding emotional touch we still can get the results far above the ordinary. But don’t waste time creating ticket design that lasts, dictionary design that lasts, website design that lasts and so on. It won’t work anyway.

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