On Design

Why design matters a lot, but not the way we think!

The notion of UX design has been thrown around a lot in the web for the last few years. User experience is important, that’s easy to understand. The last time you had a negative experience at a restaurant or hotel did you go back? On the web it is no different, especially in a space where millions of people are landing on new websites for the first time every single day. If they have a bad experience they will probably never return. But the kind of design that I want to talk about is for the user who is already actively interacting with your product. Have you ever wondered if you designed it the best way possible? Why does that even matter if users are actively using it every day?

There is a guy named Timothy Presterograduated from MIT, who set out to solve a really important problem. Over 4 million babies are dying every year around the world for completely preventable reasons. Turns out half of those kids would make it, if you could just keep them warm. When Timothy, along with his team, created a solution it got on the cover of TIME magazine. Pretty good start, right?

Timothy quickly discovered that while they had created a really beautiful product designed to inspire, it never got used. In short, Timothy learned a really good lesson. Design a product so that it will be used, not so that it will win design awards. To do that he needed to change the way he thinks about design.

there’s no such thing as a dumb user,.. there are only dumb products.

We most often think of design as it relates to beauty. However, we need to think of design in multiple ways, including function. One of the things that Timothy learned is that “there’s no such thing as a dumb user,.. there are only dumb products.” We need to start creating products that are easy to use correctly, and hard to use wrong.

Have you ever noticed how programmers tend to create incredibly efficient code that is incredibly hard to use? Or how graphic designers often create truly stunning pieces without much thought into the real world ramifications.

Design matters a lot, it matters to users. Could you imagine how different an application like Photoshop would be if they created a product that was easy to use correctly and hard to use wrong. I’ve heard numerous conversations about the frustrations of Photoshop over the years.

Later, this same Timothy had another opportunity, this time to create a product to cure children of Jaundice. Apparently it’s very easy to cure. All you need to do is shine a blue light on an infant for a couple weeks. However, it’s also easy to use current products wrong. Because of it, children are needlessly dying. Timothy and his team designed their product so that it was easy to use right. The bucket only fits one child so the light covers all of the child and the design looks trustworthy so that doctors will trust it and use it.

Often when we think of design we focus on how it looks or what experience it gives the user. We know it’s a good design when it wins awards. However, people like Timothy are discovering that awards are not always the best way to judge design. Instead, if our goal is to create designs that make the world better then we need to focus on designing them to be used, not just to be admired.

On Design

Why products become classics.

Classic Raleigh Sprint

Why is it that some designs become classics while others do not? Some classics were loved right from the beginning while others were little loved and mostly ignored until much later. Yesterday I was greeted by my old polish neighbour, “do you want this bike? 10 bucks.” In our transaction that briefly followed I quickly realized that what he saw as an old, somewhat useful, bicycle while what I saw was an icon of British 70s culture and a classic.

This lead me to ask the aforementioned question, what is it that makes a product become a classic? I believe there are three elements that a product must have that will lead it to becoming a classic. I also believe that it is one of these elements that will answer why some classics are only recognized as such later.

The three elements are as follows:

1. Be beautifully designed.

2. Embody an ideal.

3. Visually represent the culture of its time.

What do these elements mean? Lets start with the first one, beauty. Beauty is rightfully relative to the beholder, yet some designs capture near universal appreciation. This is a core requirement for a design to become a classic. The design of a classic is appreciated by nearly everyone. Furthermore, the design of a classic stands the test of time. It doesn’t merely embody the design of a fad, but has universal principles of design, such as smooth contours or balanced color schemes.

Secondly, a classic usually embodies an ideal. Let’s think about the classic VW Beetle, “the car for the People”. Or the Porsche, “the car to show the world you made it”. Some ideals were respected, some hated and some were ignored. But usually later, as new products saturate the marketplace, the ideal of the classic stands out and becomes more attractive. The form of the classic becomes a visual representation of that ideal.

Lastly, a classic visually represents the culture of its time. Just as the ideal of a product becomes more obvious over time, so do the ideals of cultures. When those two ideals run in parallel a classic is formed. However, often a culture is not aware of the uniqueness of its time. Nor that the boring product that they take for granted will one day symbolize the ideals that they will become known for or believe in.

When an object, a product, captures all three of these elements it is known as a classic. We do not have to think of what makes a product a classic to recognize it as one. However, when you look at that 30+ year old bicycle sitting in the back of the yard, reminding you of a simpler time, a time before computers ruled the workplace and cellphones ruled the living rooms and buses, you realize it is more than a peace of art, its a symbol of hope and the simple life.