What is “Good Design”?

What is Good Design?Aesthetics, organization, structure, compatibility, mobile-friendliness, best practices, minimalism, typography, color choice, drop shadows, rounded corners, responsiveness, usability, user experience, CSS3, HTML5, jQuery — none of those things is integral to what ultimately falls into the category of “good design”.

What matters the most — that is, what truly puts anything in the category of “good design” — is whether or not the thing you’ve designed achieves the end result you desire.

Examples

If you designed a web app to attract 100,000 registrations in the first year of its launch, and it achieves that result in a secure manner (thanks Matt), then it has a good design — regardless of how it actually looks or functions.

If you designed a web site to become a source of reference for professionals in a specific industry, and they visit it in droves and find it useful, then it has a good design — regardless of how ugly it is or how difficult it is to navigate.

If you designed a mobile app to be downloaded or purchased by x number of people in its first year of release, and it is indeed downloaded x number of times in that year, then it has a good design — regardless of how complicated it is, or how impractical it seems.

If you wrote a JavaScript tab switcher widget using maintainable code that is supposed to display content in an unobtrusive and efficient cross-browser manner, and the code ultimately accomplishes that purpose, then your code has good design — regardless of whether or not it uses best practices or is implementing the latest cutting-edge techniques.

If you designed a skyscraper that’s meant to lease office space for up to 500 different businesses in the first five years after it’s built, and its rooms are fully occupied after five years (and assuming it’s secure — Matt again), then it has a good design — regardless of its color, shape, or whether or not it was featured in Architecture Weekly.

If a 4-year old girl paints a picture of a horse for her mom and dad, and she shows it to them and their eyes light up and mommy says “Good job, dear! We love it!”, and the parents display the painting on their refrigerator and it stays there for many months, then it has a good design — regardless of whether or not you can actually see a horse in the painting.

What’s Your Take?

Keeping in mind that “good design” falls somewhere in between “bad design” and “great design”, what’s your definition of “good design”?

12 Responses

  1. Philip:

    Very nice article. I agree that you should always strive for accomplishing your goal.
    (sorry I just had to try to write a foul word…. [butterfly])

    • Ryan:

      Good should be stricken from the vocabulary of the designer. There is no such thing as good or bad design or if the design was successful. Dualities do not belong in design or art. If you want to say something is good or bad, you are putting yourself, your thoughts, emotions into that statement. It has nothing to do with the design.

      So saying what is good design? there just isn’t any such thing.

  2. The major confusion around the concept of design is the misconception that design is an aspect of a thing. In reality, the design of a thing IS the thing. It incorporates all aspects of that thing and cannot be referred to separate of the thing any more than the nature of a thing can be referred to separate from its design. You don’t say, “The design of that mountain is awesome, but it’s other qualities are lacking a bit.”

    However, If we refer to design as being an aspect of a thing, be it color, coding method, shape, or the like, then I believe it is impossible to relate the success of a thing to its design. The success of a thing, in relation to its ability to achieve a desired goal, is a function of the sum of all its parts, some affecting that success more than another. The design, in this respect, could have a positive or negative effect on the ability to achieve the goal, but it cannot be the sole reason it is achieved or not.

    It is only when we understand design to be the thing itself that we can attribute its success to to the design. Often times I will hear someone say “It has a great design but it doesn’t work very well.” What they are actually saying is “This thing is terrible, but it sure looks nice.”

  3. Matt:

    I understand spirit of this article, but I think it over simplifies the “goal” in many of these examples. There are often many subordinate goals to a project (security & scalability to name a couple). And I would argue that these subordinate goals CAN have an equal influence in deciding whether a design is good or bad.

    Best practices DO matter. It is NOT just the end result that matters. If I design a website with the goal of registering 100,000 users in the first month, and I meet my goal… but at the same time implement such poor security that my information of my users is stolen… guess what.. BAD DESIGN.

    If I build a skyscraper that’s meant to lease office space for up to 500 different businesses in the first five years after it’s built, and its rooms are fully occupied after five years, but then a minor earthquake brings the whole thing tumbling down, guess what… BAD DESIGN.

    Best practices matter. Good back-end design matters. Experience matters.

  4. Rhys:

    The trouble with defining design in terms of success is it assumes your goals are sensible, when in fact they could be ridiculously over-ambitious (the world’s most fuel efficient car wouldn’t count as bad design if it failed to be quite as efficient as a focus group wanted it to be) or so modest that virtually anything will meet the criteria (maybe horrible 1950s housing estates would fall under this – they give people somewhere to live, sure, but maybe the commissioners should have aimed higher).

  5. Dave:

    “If you’ve accomplished your primary objective, you’ve done a good job” might be wonderfully pragmatic, but it might also be fair to call it a little simplistic.

    Sure, your webapp got a gajillion users. Success? A couple months later it turns out 3rd parties have been pilfering customer data through a security hole.

    Or perhaps you sign on a bunch of new clients for your business-focused webapp, and then people start to ask, “hey how come your site is so hostile to screen readers”, but you did a crap job on your templating and such. Or the services slows to a crawl and you realize you didn’t build with any kind of scalability in mind, and everything is hard-coded to one specific kind of back end. Now it’s going to take months of labor and your userbase is screaming bloody murder.

    The big goal is the big goal, but other things might sometimes be worth considering too, instead of just throwing them out with the “it’s good enough” bath water.

    Just a thought.

    • Dave:

      It seems I’ve largely echoed Matt’s views on topic, further up in the thread.

      -1 to me for not reading all the comments first!

  6. Nick:

    ‘Good’ is inherently subjective and changes from site to site and purpose to purpose. Good design pleases you and lets you accomplish your purpose for using the site/app/object. I consider facebook to be a design wasteland from an aesthetic perspective, and some will always hate the most popular thing just because it’s popular, but you have to admit that with half a billion users they *have* to be doing something right.

  7. Awesome article.
    i’m agree with your article. Thx for sharing your knowledge ^^

  8. I use to strive for Great Design… well really perfect work, the job came off perfectly.
    NO, I find that Good, is good enough. How much energy do we expend, from production, from mental effort?
    Yes, still strive for Great Design, and always to a follow up, to see what you did well, and what you could do better. But with those other goals, was your design Good enough… usually yes mine are.

    as an example of my website.. not prefect, but good enough. ProPartsNow sells EZ-GO golf cart parts and accessories for 15% less than retail, and drop shipped straight from the main distributor. So is the design Great? No, but it is Good enough, and that means a lot to me. Of course, I am always refining it.

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