“Design excellence” and “good design” are the cornerstones of any architectural pursuit. But what is good design, exactly, and how does one define excellence? Let’s take a look at what some of the top minds in the field have had to say on the subject.

The content below has been edited for brevity.

Precedent

Vitruvius (b between 80-70 BCE, d sometime after 15 BCE), according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, is credited with the summation that any complete theory of architecture is essentially concerned with three interrelated ideas: Commodity, Firmness and Delight. It’s human nature, I suppose, that we like to keep things simple and clearly understood. This works especially well when it can be reduced to 3 words or concepts. It’s a trinity of sorts.

The actual quote was drawn from De architectura, libri decem (The 10 Books of Architecture). The original text was in Latin. The text said that a structure must exhibit the virtues of “firmitatis, utilitatis, venustatis” – a different sequence and better defined as: structural stability, appropriate protective and spatial accommodation, and attractive appearance. This Latin term for “beauty” (literally, the salient qualities possessed by the goddess Venus) also implies a visual quality of architecture that can arouse the emotion of love.

It’s important to note that Vitruvius wrote 10 books of architecture – not three (or one with three chapters). He had more to say on the topic than a three-word summary.

According to Vitruvius, architecture is an imitation of nature. As birds build nests, so humans construct housing from natural materials that provide shelter and protection from the elements. Vitruvius acknowledged his Greek predecessors: that when refining the art of building, the Greeks had already developed the architectural orders: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian (existing prior to the Periclean period of 495 – 429 BCE). They had established a sense of proportion, built around the form of the human body. Vitruvius attempted to define these proportions (the ‘Vitruvian Man’), as later drawn by Leonardo da Vinci: The navel as the center, the human body radially inscribed in a circle and square: a nice philosophical starting point for developing fundamental geometric patterns and helping define the cosmic order. They clearly felt the need to articulate / justify their designs in universally understood terms.

Industrial Design

Dieter Rams (b 5/20/1932), a German industrial designer and retired academic evolved with the Functionalist school of industrial design believing “Less, but better” (“Weniger, aber besser”) or “Less is More.”  His work is reflected in the consumer products of Braun, furniture of Vitsoe and others.  He struggled to create an ageless or timeless quality.

In the 1970s Rams introduced the idea of sustainable development, and of obsolescence being a crime in design.  Accordingly, he posed the question: “Is my design a good design?” The answer he formed became the basis for his ten principles:

Good Design (from Wikipedia):

1. Is innovative – Technological development is always offering new opportunities for original designs. But imaginative design always develops in tandem with improving technology and should never be an end in itself.

2. Makes a product useful – A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic criteria. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could detract from it. 

3. Is aesthetic – Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.  The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. 

4. Makes a product understandable – It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.

5.  Is unobtrusive Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

6. Is honest It does not make a product appear more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

7. Is long-lasting It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throw-away society.

8. Is thorough down to the last detail Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.

9. Is environmentally friendly Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

10. Is as little design a possible – Less is more. Simple as possible but not simpler. Good design elevates the essential functions of a product.

The “Design Around the World” Series

By Tobias Van Schneider, Desk magazine, 10/29/2018

With our “Design Around the World” series, we’ve interviewed designers from 18 different countries and counting.  We ask a few of the same questions in each interview, to compare each designer’s different way of thinking within the context of their culture.

One of the questions we always ask is this: What does good design mean to you and why do you think it’s important?

Many answers echoed each other, affirming truths ingrained in us as designers. Others brought new perspectives to light. All of them reminded me why I believe in design and love doing what I do.

Good design connects feeling with logic

“Good design is not just a pretty design — that is a given. What’s most important to us is that the story holds water and strikes an emotion with the beholder and most of all, that it makes an impact on somebody’s organization and in somebody’s life.” – Yah-Leng from Foreign Policy in Singapore

“We believe in design that makes people move, makes them feel, makes them happy or sad and forces them to do something. We want to find connections between logical things and the deep feeling around us.” – Studio Melli in Iran

Good design changes society

“A ‘good design’ that I identify with makes it possible for more people to improve their quality of life. Even if it is improved a little, I think it is a good design.” – Nod from A Black Cover Design in China

“Design isn’t something we really need in order to survive as a species, but good design helps us somehow put form and sense into what we see around us. I’d say design can’t really solve issues in our country by itself, but it can help in how others perceive these issues and influence them to change it.” – Plus 63 from the Philippines

“We think design is a way of movement. We have been working on not only client projects, but our own personal projects in an effort to share our voice with our society. In that way, collaboration with nonprofit organizations has meaning for us. We think our role as designers is making effective visual language that conveys their voices and ours. That makes a meaningful change for society. That is why many of our clients are nonprofit organizations and cultural institutes.” – Everyday Practice in South Korea

Good design solves a problem

“For me, good design is coming up with the best (clever and thoughtful) solution to a problem. It’s important to show that designers can contribute to the success of a small business, help a community recover from disasters and even assist in developing effective government programs.” – Dan from Plus63 in the Philippines

“Good design isn’t just about aesthetics or design according to our own preference. We reckon good design should provide a solution to a problem that could make a positive impact on a business and do good for society.” – LIE studio in Malaysia

Good design sells

We always want to be remembered for making products and projects highly recognized, and for solving problems. Each project that leaves the studio should be a reason for pride and desire.” –  Isabela from Sweety & Co.

“Why do people always design something new? Why do manufacturers change the packaging of their product all the time? They want to be seen, to be recognized, to stand out on the shelf full of competitors. After all, they want the product to be sold. Whether it’s commercial or non-commercial, good design reflects the ideas of a brand.” – Christina from Backbone Branding in Armenia

Good design is design that works

“I think good design is important because it just works. It’s really that simple. Less headache in trying to figure out what things are about.” – Seyi from Dá Design Studio in Nigeria

“Good design works. It just works! Humanity is complex; good design helps us enjoy our complexities when we can and brings simplicity when we can’t. In graphic design, good design is resolved thought made visual. Good design is clarity, purpose and appeal. Good design feels like a missing rib, it fits just right. Without good design, we’ll all need meds.” – Dami from Dá Design Studio

Good design communicates clearly

“Good design is important because it make our lives run more seamlessly. A piece of good communication design, for example, makes you understand a complex message in a matter of seconds. The interplay between the image, shapes and words creates something complex and occasionally unexpected. Good design works around human capabilities. It is so important, especially in the world today, when we are inundated and drowning in information, to get messages across as clearly, quickly and effectively as possible. It’s our job to get everyone on the same page about something.”  – Jean from Farmgroup in Thailand

“The beautification that design offers is obviously the cherry on top of the cake that’s communication. Good design then becomes the foundation of good communication.” – Animal in India

“Good design communicates efficiently and offers a strong differentiator for brands. These days it’s all about connecting people with products and services — not only for the product or service attributes, but for sharing a philosophy of life, a way of thinking.” – Daniela from Anagrama in Mexico

Good design changes behavior

“Good design for us is not about making things look and feel good; it should also change people’s behavior in a positive way, and we feel it is our job to continue educating our clients on this.” – Constant in Hong Kong

Good design is dynamic

“Good design is attentive, experimental, brave, honest and transparent, rooted in its context and of the moment; specific to its context but broad in its reach. It captures the essence of a subject and is flexible enough to evolve with it. It is simultaneously unique and universal.” – Dale from Hoick in South Africa.

Design Is How It Works

By Baron McDonough, Medium, 9/4/2018

Steve Jobs once said this about design: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” If you think about this quote from Job’s perspective as the founder of Apple, we as consumers never really knew how much we needed an iPhone until Jobs created it. If one thinks back to the flip-phone days, consumers were happy with the ability to simply talk and text on their mobile phone. Jobs knew what consumers wanted (streaming music, mobile internet, etc.) even before the consumers did; this happened to be a critical component to Apple’s success. While Jobs obviously made sure the iPhone (amongst other Apple products) looked and felt superior, he was also concerned with the capabilities the product offered customers. This quote really resonates because no matter how visually or physically appealing a product may be, it must also work just as effectively.

Chris Edwards on Design (paraphrased)

Regardless of what other design principles you might follow, there are a couple of principles that every graphic designer or graphic artist needs to be aware of when it comes to layout. Being aware of these will not only make you more effective when it comes to creating visual content, but also help the content you create be both more appealing and more informative.

Contrast – Quite simply, contrast is how we are able to tell one object apart from another, and it’s often used to emphasize key elements in your design projects. Contrast can be used to make elements “pop” and grab the viewer’s attention so that it serves as focal point for the design as a whole.

Space – Also known as “white space” or “negative space”, this is the open area of any visual creation or project. More specifically, it’s the visible area between, above, below and within the objects and elements that have been used in a design.

Proximity – The way that all of the different elements that make up a project are grouped together. Put simply, it’s the nearness of one element to another. Proximity is meant to help both the designer and the viewer maintain the continuity between visual elements on a page. Along with contrast, proximity is one of the elements that is designed to provide the viewer with a focal point.

Alignment – The order and organization among the different elements that make up a project. Elements that have been aligned properly create a visual connection with each other in order to communicate a story or a message to the viewer. Designers most often use alignment as a way to put all of the elements in a design together in a readable arrangement.

Repetition – In most cases, repetition would be overwhelming and turn the viewer or customer away. Not so in design. Instead, repetition can be used as a visually appealing way to put emphasis on particular elements or grab the attention of a reader.

Principles of good design overall – As product design bleeds more and more into the overall marketing space, marketers will have to contend both with designing products and figuring how to both deal with bad bits of product design and elevate the good parts of that design so that they’re readily evident to the viewer or customer.

Evolution of Design Approaches

Paraphrased from Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times, 1/14/2016

How to judge the virtue of an object: usefulness, aesthetic merit or just how it makes you feel?

According to design think-tank DeTnk’s round-up of the best-selling designs at auction, Diego Giacometti (younger brother of Alberto Giacometti whose “Pointing Man” became the world’s most expensive modern sculpture when it sold in 2015 for $141m) is the world’s most successful designer by auction sales. Yet his work hardly satisfies Rams’ criteria. Does that make it bad design? Or does it make it art? Is it, in fact, design at all?

How about fashion? If a revered shoe designer makes shoes that hurt women’s feet, is that good design? Or how about all that design engineering finesse put into the latest Maserati or Ferrari? These are desirable cars, the global aspirational symbols of feckless young males and mid-life crises. Yet what does all that design achieve? Speed and acceleration impossible to exploit on the road? Massive fuel consumption? Insurance nightmares? Or how about the watches with overly complex faces and diamond-studded bezels that inhabit the pages of magazines? This is design as desire, the production of stuff geared to conspicuous consumption and to displaying the wealth and taste (or otherwise) of the owner and flaunter. Thorstein Veblen, the US economist, identified this urge to consume conspicuously more than a century ago and it still defines an entire industry of status production.

“Design,” said Steve Jobs, “is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But, of course, if you dig deeper, it’s how it really works.” Jobs hit on something big: Design is not necessarily about the product — it is about the experience. It is something much bigger than the thing we think we are buying. It is about how something feels and makes us feel. That explains the Maserati’s and the Rolexes, the stilettos and the iPhones.

Then there is Social Design. To understand the ideas behind this we need to look back to designer Victor Papanek: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design,” said Papanek, “but only very few of them.” Social design emerged from the idea that designers were complicit in a destructive cycle of consumption and waste. It embodies the notion that design can be applied to social processes and human wellbeing, an escape from the object into the world of human interaction.

Then there is Critical Design. This is the idea that speculation about possible futures can frame a debate about the consequences of what we do today. It is using design as a tool to attempt to understand the problems we are facing and the decisions we make.

What we now think of traditional design was, in an older age, known as “the applied arts”. It was effectively the decoration of an object. For modernists, for the Bauhaus designers, design is the opposite of an applied art. It was a subtractive philosophy in which the “thingness” of the product would be exposed by stripping it naked and revealing its underlying structure and function. So a good design passes from something that is exquisitely and tastefully decorated (without regard to the arbiters of ‘Taste’) to the more absolute judgment of a product that is legible in its construction and its function (whether it works). Then, along with pop and the postmodern, things changed again. Now designers attempt to express something beyond the function, something about consumption or culture.

Some designers now seek to transcend the object itself and use their discipline as a mechanism to critique society (as well as the consumption-capitalism on which their profession theoretically depends). At a loss to explain exactly what it is they do for their clients, designers become “storytellers”, weaving narratives around storyboards for rebrands, interiors and product launches. Designers are commissioned to create a brand narrative to post-rationalize a product. From coffee to trainers, the story is everything — the artisans, the sourcing, the packaging is all part of the story, which has itself been designed. “Narrative” replaces meaning and becomes the vehicle through which they express the absence of ideas and the existential scream of contemporary consumption.

Design is almost always conceived of as a solution and designers as problem solvers. Sometimes, however, the real interest lies in the problem, not the answer. Perhaps we could conceive of design not as a product but as an idea.

 The Design Critic
Paraphrased from Alice Rawthorn, The New York Times, 6/6/2008

I’ve learned (the hard way) not to do it, but if random strangers – like taxi drivers, or whoever’s sitting on the next airplane seat – ask what I do and I’m rash enough to confess to being a design critic, they invariably follow up with: “So what is good design?”

The stock answer is that good design is generally a combination of different qualities – what it does, what it looks like, and so on. But as our expectations of design change, so do those qualities and the relationship between them. Let’s look at what they are – and where they stand – right now:

This is the nonnegotiable. Whatever it is, and whatever other great qualities it has, it can’t be well designed if it doesn’t do something useful. Even better is if that something couldn’t have been done before. That’s always been so, all the way back to the early 200s B.C. when Emperor Qin Shihuangdi conquered China equipped with a very early example of good design. The armies of the day were led by archers who made their own weapons, with the result that each archer’s arrows could only be fired from his own bow. Qin insisted that all arrows be made to the same length with identical, replaceable tips. If an archer ran out during a battle, he could use his colleagues’, and if he died, his ammunition wasn’t wasted.

Even today it’s possible for something to qualify as good design simply by fulfilling its function efficiently. Take Google’s logo. Stylistically, it’s awful with a dodgy font and the twee illustrations for the customized “holiday logos” with which Google marks special occasions such as Christmas Day, St. Patrick’s Day and landmark birthdays. But those tweely illustrated logos are so much fun – like a gift from Google – that they make us think more fondly of it. Job done.

Few things enrage design purists more than suggesting that good design is all about looks. It isn’t. But Qin’s arrows and Google’s logo are exceptions, because function is seldom enough either, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying eye candy. That’s why textbook examples of good design – such as Marcel Breuer’s 1920s chairs, or Dieter Rams’s 1950s electrical products for Braun – tend to score highly on form and function. But our perception of what looks good is becoming increasingly complex, and often contradictory.

Once we sought beauty in art, but now we tend to prize it for being challenging or provocative, and feel more comfortable admiring beauty in things that are also useful, like Apple’s gorgeous digital products. We’ve also grown suspicious of beauty in an era when we know that so many “beautiful” images are literally optical illusions, the result of digital retouching. Perhaps that’s why the jolie laide aesthetic of the German designer Konstantin Grcic has become so fashionable in furniture design. Its ungainliness seems authentic.

The belief that the new is better than the old was a central tenet of 20th-century design culture, and it’s still seductive today. Geeky though this sounds, I love the styling of the new Coca-Cola Classic can, but love it even more for knowing that it’s the product of the latest printing technology.

But innovation isn’t enough on its own. Take the glue invented in 1968 by 3M, which could stick paper onto a flat surface but wasn’t strong enough to do so permanently. It was a useless innovation until one of the company’s scientists was in church and realized that the glue could have stopped his bookmark from slipping out of his hymnbook. Cue the very useful Post-it note.

Our faith in the new has also been shaken by environmental concerns (though more about them later). We still see innovation as being beneficial, not least as it’s our best chance of tackling our environmental problems, but we’re more skeptical about it. Take the Nano, the cheap five-seater car launched by Tata in India. Once we’d have raved about a people’s car selling for as little as 100,000 rupees, or $2,400; instead we grouch about its ecological impact.

This has always mattered. No one likes things that are tricky to operate, but how they work (or, to be specific, how we work them) matters much more today; at least it does when it comes to digital products. You can guess roughly how to operate an electronic object, like a TV set or record player, just by looking at it. But how could anyone be expected to know what to do with an inscrutable box of tricks, like an MP3 player or a cellphone, from its opaque appearance?

That’s why the user interface software (“U.I.” in geek-speak), which determines how we operate digital devices, is now so important in shaping our experience of using them, and whether or not we consider them to be well designed. Lousy U.I. design spawns irritatingly overcomplicated products. The inspired variety produces ones, like the iPhone, which are so easy to operate that you don’t need an instruction manual, or like the Wii, which are pure enjoyment.

What’s the point of designing something gorgeous and useful if it makes us feel guilty, because we know that it’s ethically or environmentally irresponsible? Once such concerns were dismissed as the hang-ups of a cranky minority. Not now. Just think of how quickly the plastic bag has become taboo in many countries.

How can we consider something to be well designed unless we feel confident about the way it was designed and made, and will be eventually be disposed of? Tata’s Nano is a prime example. Yet guiltlessness alone isn’t always enough. Think of the compact fluorescent light bulbs, which consume much less energy than their electricity-guzzling incandescent predecessors, but are so ugly, both in themselves and their soulless light, that they couldn’t possibly qualify as good design.

The Vocabulary of Good Design:

These are terms that seem to pop up constantly in discussing issues of design, aesthetics, composition, validity and critical judgements.  These are in no particular order or priority and are by no means intended as a complete list.  The vocabulary of investigation sometimes sheds light on meanings…

Historical precedent
Standards of Practice
Response to Global Warming
Lessons from past projects
Lessons from history
Planning
Urban Planning
Neighborhood
Community
Ethnicity
Race
Infrastructure
Construction and the Art of building
Materials
Scholarship
Design for energy – energy modeling
Adaptive reuse
Historic Restoration
Appropriate (ness)
Context (ual)
Fit
Durability
Endurance
Net Zero
Codes and regulations
Accessibility and open access
Biophilic Design
Nature
Landscape and integration
Communication
Art
Sculpture
Sculptural
Color
Renovation
Imitation
Acoustics
Aesthetics
Resilience and resilient design
Project delivery methods
Social economics
Neighborhoods
Culture
Racial politics
Comfort and health
Workplace environment: encouraging innovation
Hospitality
Inspiring awe
Religious environments
Educational environments
Finance and affordability
Beauty
Form
Texture
Scale
Simplicity
Sound
Safety
Warmth
Enclosure
Virtue
Quality
Usefulness
Merit
Utility 
Commodity
Delight

Compiled, edited, paraphrased and generally misinterpreted by: Leonard Wyeth AIA CPHD