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What Constitutes Good Design?

It’s incredible how a simple, four-word question can so comprehensively divide opinion. What constitutes good design? It seems as though you’ll receive a different answer depending upon whom you ask. One school of thought believes that aesthetic value is the fundamental essence of good design; another will state that good design cannot exist without functionality.

The revered twentieth century designer of consumer electrical goods, Dieter Rams, posits that good design relies in part upon ten principles which include innovation, usefulness, aesthetic value, honesty, durability and minimalism but it is possible to cite frequent examples of designs that are widely accepted as ‘good’ that do not conform to all of Dieter Rams’ principles.

Debate will always rage as to what constitutes good design simply because the question cannot be answered with any degree of objectivity. However, in addition to the tenets expressed by Dieter Rams here are some more popular theories as to aspects which, in greater or lesser combination, constitute good design.

Good Design fulfills its intended purpose

Design is not an arbitrary process. Regardless of the subject, be it a building, an artwork, a product or anything else that requires a design, the designer has a specific purpose or goal in mind which their design will fulfil. Whether a design results in something of beauty or intrinsic usefulness or not, if that design completely and accurately fulfills its intended purpose then surely it must constitute a good design?

Good design gives us something that we didn’t have before

Dieter Rams justifiably includes innovation on his list of ‘good design’ principles, but is there a distinction between good design and innovative design. The Apple iPod is regularly cited as an example of good design, and certainly it conforms to the majority of Dieter Rams’ principles. But it could be argued that what Apple has done in reality is to have taken an existing good design – the first ever portable music player (the ‘Stereobelt’) was designed by German engineer Andreas Pavel back in 1972 – and simply updated it. Before Pavel’s breakthrough design, portable music players simply didn’t exist.

Apple’s iPod Nano

Good design uses materials in the most effective way possible

A principle that has driven civilization for the last two or three centuries is the desire to achieve more using less. In modern terms we think of environmental sustainability and ecological friendliness as being paramount to good design, but a designer’s ability to look at a problem and the existing solution and to create an alternative solution that is better, faster, less labor intensive or uses fewer resources has always been considered a key constituent of good design.

Good design delivers a positive emotional impact

It’s as though humans have an innate instinct that differentiates between good and bad design; a kind of emotional gut response that is more than, for example, a simple sense of admiration at the beauty of an aesthetically pleasing design such as the Taj Mahal. Good design seems to possess the power to automatically arouse positive emotions such as awe, wonder, curiosity, happiness within us, whether at a conscious or subconscious level. Whether we talk about the newest concepts or making vintage designs, good design has no age.

The Taj Mahal

Good design has intrinsic value.

Regardless of the financial worth of an object or building, good design has value of both an intangible and tangible nature. The value of good design is apparent in the way it makes us feel about it, about how we accept it and how it fits into and enhances our life. The value of good design is apparent from the way in which an initial concept has been executed to produce a final product. The value of good design is in its usefulness to us, how well it fulfills its purpose and how greatly it satisfies our needs and desires.


Bogdan is the founder of Top Design Magazine. You can find him in Bucharest-Romania so next time you want to drink a beer there and talk about web and stuff, give him a message.