I was recently asked, “What is good design?” and stumbled over the answer. I said something along the lines of “good design does not harm.” This is a pretty hard thing to measure. And reflecting on my experience, I realize that almost everything I’ve designed has had negative impacts.
Design, or the act of planning to create new structures in our world, is inherently harmful— it alters our world's natural state. Good design is an oxymoron (elusive at best). The closest I’ve felt satisfied with a design I’ve worked on is when I know that I considered another person over myself. By emphasizing listening to others, we can mitigate design's adverse effects. To practice what I preach, I reached out to the designers, product managers, engineers, and friends that I love most to see how they would define good design. Here are their answers. I highly recommend checking them out on their respective portfolios or LinkedIn pages hyperlinked as well because #linklove.
Good design is unnoticeable. It facilitates an experience driven purely by the consumer's intuition. —Kyle Lucovsky, Software Engineer
From the perspective of a dev: No joke I used to think for the longest good design was anything I was being asked to build that was easy to implement because it meant the designer(s) were producing work with a clear understanding of an important audience (the folks who have to make these designs function).
Nowadays I think a more complete version of my thoughts about this is that "good" design in my opinion knows who it is meant for and is ruthlessly efficient in that pursuit. It doesn't look any one way, it doesn't come from any single source, it isn't a bundle of specific features, easy good design definitely isn't bound by moral or ethics either, it just knows who its for and shows you.
I think as someone who has overemphasized thinking about all sorts of "systems" and thinking about outcomes I think this is how I'm at least able to identify "good" design. Its Affirm's invisible lending algorithms that determine credit worthiness without a credit check and the correlated innovations, (and implications). Problematic certainly, but the results (it doesn't even feel like being extended credit) can't be disputed.
It is a home buying process that relies on needless complexity, obfuscation, and a general lack of resilience against systemic exclusion that keeps unwanted populations out of the market as efficiently as possible (speaking from experience). Again, problematic, but you can't help but marvel at its efficacy.
It is also a social media platform (yes I'm this boring) that is widely hated for all the harmful things it perpetuates but continues to be the undisputed king of telemetry and predictive consumption behavior. Yes I think FB is actually good design once we fully accept/internalize what it was designed/setup to do.
I guess without going too deep on this slight tangent and maybe without also copping out with vague furrowed brow nonsense: good design in almost all things are the ways its effective without our assumptions of what it "should" be doing and a honest appraisal of what it is actually effectively doing.
If it isn't doing anything particularly well or in an organized consistent way , then imo that is genuinely bad design. So uh whatever isn't doing that. —Roti Williams, creative developer
First and foremost, it’s invisible (invisible to the non-designer, ie 99.9% of humans). It’s the appliance that works out of the box, the car where the volume knob is “right there” or the app that doesn’t require a five-step initiation ritual. Good design is the end product of a process or an intuition — both of which are based on years, decades and millennia of observing, parsing and synthesizing the behaviors of others. —Greg Hochmuth, artist and engineer living in New York
Good design is a solution to a problem. —Alaina Browne, Executive Director, Product @ The Atlantic
Good design includes a plan, a process and an outcome.
Design is not an accident. My college drawing teacher, Richard Hall, famous for high standards and brutally direct critiques, was especially piqued if a student dared defend their artwork with, "I was just trying to do something different." His response, like thunder, "I could [defecate] on the floor and slide in it. That doesn't make it art." Same goes for good design.
Design process resolves a series of decisions. How big? How fast? What color? For whom? Good process requires informed decisions: Who is the audience? What are their needs, expectations, biases? How will they discover it, use it?
Design outcomes elicit responses from users. Success is based on those responses: perception, emotion, aesthetics, usability.
That's the trick baked into your four-word question. Good is not a subjective opinion. Good is an objective conclusion based on measurement and validation. We know what good means because we start with informed assumptions, then validate those assumptions.
I believe in the benefits of accidents and play. I've seen good outcomes happen despite bad process, and good process fall flat in the end. Good design, however, to your question, is an effective process fueled by informed decisions that leads to measurably successful outcomes.
Not a sexy definition, granted. But there it is. And I now realize I have become my college drawing professor. —George Frederick, Senior Director of User Experience & Design
“It depends on all the factors and stakeholders involved: customer satisfaction, business value, etc. And when all the basic goals are achieved, it comes to the ethics and philosophy of design. —Yifan Zhang, Product Designer
Stay tuned for more definitions from the best of the best!