What is good design?

Ah, the perennial question of what it is exactly that characterizes and establishes “good design”. It seems non-designers in particular are more enchanted by this question (i.e., engineers and managers) and its potential answer, for it begs (from the mere phrasing) a specific, repeatable, verifiable formula / recipe/ prescription that guarantees successful results… Every. Single. Time. Well…

Seasoned designers, of course, know better than that. There is no formula. There is no silver bullet. There is no magic answer that guarantees outsized profits, mesmerized customers, or a miraculous “Steve Jobs” halo of gamechangery.

What I’ve learned over the past dozen years of practicing design among a variety of companies (agency, big corp, small studio) is that “good design” is really an attitude, a posture, a mindset, rather than a guaranteed formula for repeatable success. It is a structured yet adaptive manner of empathy, sketching, collaboration, creativity, prototyping, iteration, more prototyping, more iteration, constant feedback and placing deliberate bets per calculated risks according to the market, the technologies, the untapped needs, and ultimately the core values of the company, as embodied by the executive team. Those are the most critical factors that enable a “good design” to materialize and commercialize, not some 1-2-3 stepwise formula. Every situation is different. What works for Apple or Tesla or Nest may not work for your market or industry. But the persistent needs of empathy, creativity, prototyping, iteration, feedback are the anchors for what can enable a good design to emerge and transpire. 

So what is “good design”? It’s an attitude of design-driven excellence (from strategy to delivery), a process of iteration and creativity, a mentality of enabling humanistic achievement for people, and a value system grounded in excellence of craft with a magnanimous bent towards what’s best for customers: appropriate, empowering, delightful. What that means in terms of the particulars of execution depends, but that’s actually a good thing. There can be no one “right” way. This plurality enables the uniqueness of possibility, the returns of potentiality, not some generic formula of mass utility, a vanilla whitewashing. Through the diversity of what constitutes good for different audiences lies the opportunity for cross-pollinating innovations and exchanges of ideas, ever more progressive cycles of creativity. After all, isn’t that what “good design” that enables humanity’s progress should be about anyway? 

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