For over 20 years, I have been working across multiple design disciplines. The roles of such have changed with trends but the principles of good design remain the same. The ten principles of good design by Dieter Rams who influenced Jony Ive at Apple for decades, are as true today as ever. I started my design career as an interactive or multimedia designer and now, I work across brand and digital design experiences. I say experience, as every form of brand led communications or interaction with products including the physical, will be impacted by how we perceive it. When we touch or engage, our rational thinking is complimented by emotionally driven ideas and responses. We think ‘this chair feels comfortable, I’m relaxed sitting in it’ or ‘this screen has clear interactions for me, I feel comfortable to use it.’
Starting a modern furniture brand with no prior experience of industrial design had some challenges, however, the considerations for making a piece of furniture, a website or a digital application are all grounded in design thinking. This unites all forms of design disciplines.
Design thinking is a way of problem-solving, by putting the needs of the user first. Any human interaction or experience should be created by adopting a design thinking mindset and following a process of steps:
Empathy – think from the perspective of your user and their needs
Definition – define the problem you need to solve
Ideation – brainstorm ideas by create mood boards, sketching or drawing
Prototype – build clear and thoughtful representations of draft solutions
Test – assume nothing by testing with real users to gather important insights
Implement or build – develop your design ideas further and build the final product
In the fields of industrial, interior and furniture design, you will often hear designers referring to the ergonomics of a product. This is can be defined as ‘The practice of relating to or designed for efficiency and comfort in the working environment.’ In other words, the ergonomics of a product are linked to the needs of the person. When I designed the A Stool, I had a genuine need – I lived in a small flat in London and needed a flexible furniture. Modern furniture which could adapt to my daily needs: sitting, eating and supporting. It follows therefore, that furniture design and digital design (UX Design) are deeply connected, in that they are driven by design thinking.
If we look back at early civilisations like ancient Greece or the Egyptians, many of the first ‘tools’ were conceived to aid or enable mankind to make things in order for society to thrive. Historians believe the first type of furniture made was probably a stool due to its simple construction, combining a seat with four turned legs. Chairs evolved later and are much harder to design because of their amplified ergonomics – a stool requires ‘man’ to sit up straight whereas a chair offers a seat and also supports the back. Is it not absurd to suggest the principles of digital or UX design can therefore be traced back to ancient times and the design of furniture and tools. These forms of design are human-oriented because the design is established to solve a need. The functionality of product designs within the digital world, are often clearer in terms of their objective and link to identified user needs, however the experience can be very frustrating due to the poor design. Take the Google Calendar as an example. The buttons are clearly labeled but the interaction doesn’t always provide the expected screen or use the simplest steps to perform a task. On mobile, to add a new event on a specific date, rather than being able to select a date from the month view and adding a specific event, you have to click an ambiguous ‘+’ button. The user can enter a title, then select the date. This process is fine however, the steps are different to that on desktop. Users are constantly switching between desktop and mobile, and we all learn functional processes through interacting. But if the processes are vastly different between devices, frustrations can rise as the human brain has too conflicting ways to solve the problem. I read blog articles from users who were frustrated with the calendar and it was suggested by one publisher, that because there are so many users interacting with the software on a regular basis, Google are resistant to make changes. The disruption of change could lead to more complaints in the short-term but what about the design thinking in the first place?
Let us not forgot the role of aesthetics in design. Successful product design can’t be granted due to the functionality alone. Modernism was a design movement started in the 1920s, driven in part by the devastation caused from the first world war and the Russian revolution. Both events impacted on the availability and supply of materials, but also lead to a desire to reignite and design a new kind of society. The new world would take aesthetic cues from technology, manufacturing and human-centred needs.
The often minimal aesthetic seen from objects of era, have led to a timeliness quality which should be applauded – especially in an overly populated world with a disposable approach to consumer products. However, the artistic merits of a design mustn’t be compromised by the function of a product. Digital experiences, objects and furniture all need to be beautiful and I believe, this can be achieved by giving them a personality. Lavish adornments dominated design from the Victorian and Art Deco periods, which do offer visual personality but they aren’t grounded by the desire to express meaning. The Modernist movement questioned why decoration of any sort was needed, which led to the stripped back aesthetic. This remains the dominant approach in many design disciplines, but especially toward modern architecture.
I recently watched a TED talk by architect Thomas Heatherwick, who says ‘Where did all the lumps and bumps on buildings go? When did city architecture become so … dull’. He is referring to the ubiquitous approach to designing soulless buildings of steel and glass that dominate our cities. Where local cultures and traditions from one continent to the next, are smothered by bland, international design approaches. He makes the case for ‘radically human buildings’ and I urge you to watch the Thomas Heatherwick presentation. Instead of adorning design as a decoratative layer, Heatherwick brings artistic direction through the entire concept of the project. The cancer treatment development at a leading hospital in Yorkshire, which his studio was commissioned to design, was built on the last patch of greenery on the site. Heatherwick choose to retain this green space by creating giant plywood structures, which slotted together and raised the building above the land. The outcome was a space for patients, staff and visitors to come together, a human-centred approach. Aesthetics and functionality are equally important components to design.
UX design has become a popular disciple as more experiences are offered to users digitally. The features and tools would be uninteresting to use if they were offered to the user on a plate of corporate blandness. Enter the role and importance of visually identity. Every brand of scale needs to leverage their foundational, stylistic elements, or ingredients – I like the metaphor of visual identities being like a recipe in the kitchen; add the correct amount of each ingredient at the preferred stage and you’ll cook up a treat but when we cut corners or add too much of something and the dish will leave a bad taste in the mouth. Poorly implemented identities in digital applications will either look inconsistent from the core brand or simply be confusing, even impossible to use – think about UI colour ratios for accessibility. The identity makes an experience feel connected to the brand, which in turn, should portray the idea behind the brand – its reason for being in response to a human need.
Good design in today’s world has to be aesthetically interesting (artistic), have a purpose (human-centred design) and a clear personality (brand led) in all forms of practice. This post isn’t a historical journey charting the principles of design, it simply suggests that all design is connected through shared methodologies. Rest in peace Dieter Rams, who sadly passed last month and whose methodology lives on.
- Is innovative
- Makes a product useful
- Is aesthetic
- Makes a product understandable
- Is unobtrusive
- Is honest
- Is long-lasting
- Is thorough down to the last detail
- Is environmentally friendly
- Involves as little design as possible