What Makes Good Design “Good Design”?

One of the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked was one asked on the first day of class for my Human-Computer Interaction class at Drexel. That question is the title of this post, “What makes good design ‘good design’?” It was very interesting hearing people’s answers: in general, the hands that shot up right away gave the least constructed answers, while the ones who took tim to think gave much more detailed ones. Personally, I was one of about four people who didn’t answer. In fact, even today it is a question I still don’t have a single answer to. The key word there is single. I have an answer to the question, but my answer depends on what you mean by “good design”. Is “good design” defined literally such that a good design is one that looks like a good design, perhaps sleek and simple? Or is “good design” defined in terms of usability?

When I think of good design in the literal sense, I personally think of good design as one that is simple, modern, and yet has a slight hint of playful. Call me crazy, but I’d call the Live Tiles interface Microsoft now uses in all their products good design: it doesn’t try to emulate real-life objects (a notes app doesn’t look like a pad of paper), corners are square because they work just fine as squares, those squares tell me everything I need to know with just a quick glance, and I can customize it just enough to call it mine.

That said, iOS, on the other hand, I’d call horrible design, especially in iOS6. iOS tries too hard to emulate traditional objects (notes looks like a note pad, calendar looks like a calendar). That said, when was the last time you used a traditional notepad? A paper calendar? As the world shifts to mobile, I personally wouldn’t call a notepad or a paper calendar traditional anymore. I’d call them obsolete. I’d call a smartphone or tablet traditional now. My phone should stop having an identity crisis, thinking it’s a notepad when in reality it’s my phone. In full honesty, the only reason I still use iOS is because it has all of the apps I use elsewhere. Android likes to think it does with its clusterfuck of an app store. Windows Phone is remarkably getting there rather quickly. iOS started off as being simple, modern, and slightly playful, but it’s now stale, stuck in 2006, and has only a few clever easter eggs (ever notice the volume bar in Music “reflects” light?) My iPhone is now a mess of icons and folders, my notifications are in a long, scrolling list that likes to fill up and reorganize itself as I’m clearing it out, and at this point the only remotely unique thing about my phone that really makes it mine is the wallpaper.

However, if “good design” is defined in terms of usability, I still think iOS would win in that category. Gestures and actions make sense (swipe to delete, tap and hold for options), it only has enough buttons that it can get the job done, and it’s pretty easy to pick up and go (there’s a reason why the Kids space in Apple Stores have iPads over iMacs now). Microsoft’s Tiles, on the other hand, aren’t quite as much of a good design. Yes, information is front-and-center, but manipulating them is a whole ‘nother story. I’d hardly call swiping down slightly to resize a tile intuitive (to Microsoft’s credit, after you do figure it out, you get used to it) nor swiping from the bottom to reveal options intuitive either. Swiping down to close I’d call reasonable, but I personally like the PlayStation Vita’s swipe from the corner better (it’s also a lot more fun).

Obviously, it is possible to have something be a good design in one sense, but not the other. So what about something that is a good design in both senses? Personally, I’d say that for something that meets both, good design would be an understatement, but it still holds true. And so it does for Moekana, a beautifully designed, highly effective study tool for learning Hiragana. I believe Moekana may well be the perfect example of true good design: it’s simple, it’s effective, and it sure as hell is fun. Put simply, there’s a very good reason it constantly sells out at retailers.

Nonetheless, in both ways of defining “good design”, it is largely subject to personal opinion, but that does not mean that design is without generally accepted guidelines – there are plenty of them. So, if I were sitting in that class today, I would have answered, but I would have asked my professor if they meant “good design” from a usability or visual standpoint. Of course, the reason I would answer that way now is because of that class – easily one of the best required courses I’ve ever taken, but also one of the trickiest. One of our class activities was to design a new music sharing service. Everyone designed for an online solution. Turns out we were supposed to design for an older couple living on a farm with no computer nor internet and only a record player. So what happened? Not a single person in class had asked who we were designing for – and that was the point of the lesson. And that’s exactly one of the things I love about design: it’s a damn good way to see how someone thinks, and asking them “What makes good design ‘good design’?” is a great starting point.

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