Class announcements will go here!

Inherently Good Design

Posted: April 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: spring 2011, Uncategorized | No Comments »

Throughout history and society, it has been a recurring element that those select few who bear specialized knowledge and skills regarding a specific subject hold the greatest power and influence over the masses. These groups of people fall under the category of elitism—a word that carries both positive and negative connotations. While it can be argued relentlessly over whether elitism is “good” or “bad”, there is no denying that it exists. According to Jeffrey Meikle in his book, Design in the USA, “’Good design’ simply denotes the tastes and aspirations of a particular elite at a particular time.” [1] However, while elitists do exist within the realm of design, they alone do not dictate what good design encompasses nor do they force a prescription for the masses. Good design can be inherently good through its progressive ideas, usability, and engaging discourse between designers and consumers.

Meikle’s provocative words beg the question: what is good design? Is it even definable in a way that utilizes objectivity? Whether something can even be labeled as such remains so controversial because opinions differ and will always remain subjective. However, it must be established that good design is unquantifiable on a purely aesthetic level; instead, it should be viewed as a progressive idea whose value is determined by the strength of its argument. For example, upon purchasing a reusable water bottle, there are a myriad of varying designs to choose from. Some have straws, others are made out of aluminum, but ultimately they all encompass the singular idea of a portable water system. It is an argument for getting water from the tap to the mouth [2], and through this human necessity for water, the idea of the water bottle is given the opportunity to evolve and progress in order to fit the needs of the consumer.

Furthermore, much like an infinite limit, the concept of good design is never final, but is something that is always being worked toward as a goal by designers. The way ideas continue to progress and become better design is not through an elite group of people, but through the discourse between the designer with specialized knowledge and the consumer who interacts with the idea behind the product. This dialogue comes in the form of action and response—the action being a designer’s idea or argument translated into some form and the response being the feedback from the consumer regarding the usability of the object. The combination of the two allows the designer to incorporate the criticism of the consumer into future design, thus creating better design. This is the reason why companies such as Apple and Adobe constantly update their products and interfaces to the point where some find it irritating. Because they bear specialized knowledge that the average person would not have, these corporations must be responsible for complying and responding to the needs of the customer. When the action is sold before considering the response, only then is elitism criticized of controlling the tastes and trends of good design. Otherwise, how could elitism dictate design trends when ultimately designers should be creating with the consumers in mind?

However, it is not to say that exceptions do not exist. Two designers, Don Chadwick and Bill Stumpf, designed an ergonomic chair made out of flexible mesh for Herman Miller: the Aeron chair. Because of its unfamiliar form, the initial response to the design was terrible—those testing the chair criticized it for everything that it wasn’t supposed to be. They described it as “uncomfortable and alien” [3], even after the great amount of ergonomic research put into the design. However, with continued persistence, over time the testers began to like the Aeron chair more and more—but even so, it was not up to Herman Miller standards. Still, they stuck by the design and released it regardless, and luckily, the response from the consumers was extremely positive. In this case, the action seems to have been sold before the response, but it wasn’t as if the consumers were completely disregarded; a great amount of research was put into the design to make it as comfortable as possible for the human body. Needless to say, there are exceptions to everything. While the question on whether good design is achieved still remains, designers strive to reach closer to the answer through the improvement and evolution of ideas through conversation with the consumer, making the standards of good design a collective, rather than elitist, effort.

During the mid-20th century, modern design continued to flourish. However, much opposition arose, claiming that it was unfair for an elite group to force a certain prescription on the masses that didn’t fit everyone’s personal tastes. This was especially evident during the Museum of Modern Art’s 1949 exhibition entitled Good Design—a collection of modern household products that sought to reach out to American consumers and retailers. The name of the showcase alone sparked much controversy, as many took the title as the elitists’ pretentious, end-all-be-all label to the products displayed.

Edgar J. Kaufmann was highly criticized for his exhibition because he and a choice jury—all of whom carry strong backgrounds in design—made the selections. Meikle writes, “Although Larsen [a textile designer who supported the MoMA collection] affectionately referred to MoMA as the ‘mother church’ of modern design, that phrase suggested an institution that was setting and enforcing standards to control design’s explosive velocity. That is precisely what Kaufmann and MoMA were all about.” [4] However, it is not safe to assume that Kaufmann believed that his exhibition was the final say in what was to be considered good design because once again, good design is ever evolving and never final. The name Good Design was provocative, challenging the consumer to refute or at least question, “What is good design?” The controversy of the exhibition title allowed for discourse between the customer and the designer, and this was the intention of Kaufmann upon creation of Good Design. Good Design became the action, and the consumer feedback, the response. Furthermore, it was necessary to set a standard by labeling products as Good Design because otherwise, we would not be able to differentiate the good from the bad without anything to compare it with. If that were the case, then the conversation necessary for the progression of ideas would never occur.

Terrence Riley and Edward Eigen, in their article Between the Museum and the Marketplace: Selling Good Design, reiterate that, “The ultimate goals of this complex strategy…were to inform consumers and manufacturers about modern design products.” [5] And while many believed that the masses took on a completely passive role and were force-fed opinions from elitists, that was not the case. One of the most important functions of the Good Design showcase was the incorporation of the public opinion into the exhibition. The visitors would rate the pieces through polls taken at each door, and the results were distributed amongst the public. Kaufmann stressed that Good Design would provide impetus for designers to further progress their original ideas and arguments so that better design could be achieved. Once again, action and response is utilized to involve the consumer’s opinion, and thus, the status quo is not directed by elitism alone, but rather a collective group. Without the specialization, research, and impetus, a consensus on good design could never exist.

Not only in Good Design, but the importance of the notion of discourse between designer and consumer transcends even past modernism. Ettore Sottsass was an Italian designer active in the late 20th century who crafted the Carlton Bookcase. At first glance, it is easy to overly criticize this interesting furniture design. Not only is it extremely pricey, but also physically does not mimic the every day bookshelf. Its angled walls and unconventional composition prompt the consumer to think, “That’s not a bookshelf!” But upon that realization, they then wonder, “Wait, what is a bookshelf?” Radical designs such as Sottsass’s bookshelf appear to be another iteration of an elitist forcing a specific prescribed taste to an audience, but what it really does is stimulate conversation and idea between the designer and the people for whom they are designing. It challenges the audience to redefine a social norm and therefore redefine how to interact with the object. The Aeron chair example from earlier communicates this notion precisely—its supposedly “alien” form allowed consumers to redefine their idea of a chair’s form, and as a result, understand the design and designer better.  Ideas and insight behind products that initially seem elitist end up becoming catalysts that advance the world of good design.

There is no denying that elitism exists, and will always exist—especially in design. That is not to say, however, that it is the sole dictation of what defines good design. Good design is inherently good through its progressive ideas and communication with the populace. With exhibitions such as Good Design as well as catalytic designs that stimulate the minds of the consumer, evolution within design becomes infinite, and we are able to reach closer and closer to the holy grail of “good design”. According to Paola Antonelli, the Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at MoMA, “Sometimes objects are not immediately functional. They’re not to be sat upon, or to be used to eat, or to be used to turn on the volume. Sometimes objects just deliver emotions or are just part of your life. That’s also enough.” [6]


[1] Jeffrey Meikle, Design in the USA.

[2] Peter Hall, A Good Argument, p. 75.

[3] Malcom Gladwell, Blink.

[4] Jeffrey Meikle, Design in the USA, p. 148.

[5] Terrence Riley and Edward Eigen, Between the Museum and the Marketplace: Selling Good Design, p. 152.

[6] Paola Antonelli, What makes good design?, http://bigthink.com/ideas/2732 (video).


Works Cited

Antonelli, Paola. “What makes good design?” February 19, 2008. Big Think. http://bigthink.com/ideas/2732.

Gladwell, Malcom. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2005.

Hall, Peter. “A Good Argument.” Metropolis, March 2009, 73-75.

Meikle, Jeffrey L. Design in the USA. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Riley, Terence, and Edward Eigen. Between the Museum and the Marketplace: Selling Good Design. New York, 1994.