Class announcements will go here!

The Good Argument

Posted: April 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: spring 2011 | No Comments »

Two words, good and design, both evoke ambiguous moral debate. The two words combined, good design, have been theorized to simply represent the opinions “of a particular elite at a particular time.”[1] But, if good design could only exist as a judgment, then bad design would have to be fleetingly subjective in the same way. With that in mind, what would we call a designed object where elements are misspelled, wasteful, or deathly? If such unintentional flaws are present in an object’s being, then we could assert that the object is bad design. Where there is bad design there is better design. When something can be better a hierarchy is created. At one extreme of this spectrum sits bad design, broken and misspelled, and at another end temporarily rests good design.

The hardest part about defining good design is where to draw the line, who gets to draw it, and does it matter that it is being drawn? Imagine a consumer in a world where good and bad design didn’t exist, only individual opinion. In this scenario a shopper walks into a Ford dealership in 1971. This car seeker is rich, happy, and has a strong will to live, let’s call him Gerald. He looks at his options and chooses the 1971 Ford Pinto, after deciding it is the best-designed vehicle in the lot. Who is to say otherwise? As he is driving away in his new ride, Gerald gets hit from behind by the Ford Bronco of another new car owner, because the 1971 Ford Pinto had a hazardous fuel system that “tended to erupt in flame in rear-end collisions,”[2] Gerald dies in combustion. Where as the owner of the Bronco only had to replace their bumper, and deal with the hypothetical guilt. Based on this situation we could infer that the Pinto, or at least the fuel component of the car, is bad design.


In a world without the idea of good or bad design, the opinion of the unaware consumer would lead to the selection of the wrong choice of product creating a dangerous and wasteful marketplace. Illustrator Joel Nakamura once stated, “A bad painting might annoy you, but bad design can kill you.”[3] That being said, is the only distinction that bad design causes death or injury and good design does not? The combustibility of the 1971 Ford Pinto was a clear problem. But that example only shows that good design can be present in the moment as a result of the existence of bad design, how does the spectrum translate through time? To deal with any given issue a design thinker creates something to project an idea, or debate an existing one. If we analyze a tangible response to a situation then “its strength or weakness as an argument is a good guide to its value.”[4] This postulate depends entirely on being able to situate an artifact in its context.


Take the Carlton Bookshelf for example, designed by Ettore Sottsass in 1981. Without context the object could be viewed as being oddly colored, inefficient in structure for storing books, expensive for a democratic consumer, and playful to the point of childish. The man who made it, Sottsass, was an Italian designer who grew up during the “European upheavals of the First World War” and was “largely defined by the economic and political legacy of the second.”[5] His philosophy for design work in the 1980’s, when the bookshelf was made, was to create a collection of “philosophical notes and statements.”[6] Therefore we can situate the Carlton Bookshelf with the argument of purposefully breaking an archetype. With this contention, Sottsass implies that good design is not creating an absolute object; rather it is to inspire ideas and understandings as time progresses. Even if the craft of a bookshelf is perfected for generations, by not questioning its archetypal form you limit the possibility to improve the idea of a bookshelf. Sottsass remarked that “a good design is like the possibility of going to the moon,” and the intent doesn’t have to be selling the objects but to “release creative energies, to suggest possibilities, to stimulate awareness, to bring people’s feet back onto the planet.”[7] This is a humbling perspective for Sottsass to design with, noting that his work is not a reflection for absolute perfect objects; instead his objects become a few words in the conversation of what good design can be.

By recognizing the existence of bad design the reality of good design is materialized. When we contextualize an object in its time period and analyze the argument of its creation, it is illuminated that good design can be both a useful object as well as a polemic idea. Even through this contemplation, it can still be argued that good design is simply the opinions of an elite at a specific time, such as the juried panels of designers who placed orange-and-brown Good Design tags on new objects during the MoMA exhibit in 1951. But without the critique and analysis of designed matter by some form of specialist, ideas on the effectiveness of an object’s argument would not be able to permeate the imaginations of future designers. In order to find an example of good design, which is not tainted with egos and economic reward systems, we have to look into the empirical trends of society.


Personal water carrying devices were created as early as man could develop tools to carve the hides and bladders from other animals. In recent years, the trend of packaging water in discardable plastic receptacles for convenience has become a normal behavior. Over sixty million plastic bottles a day are disposed of in America alone. According to a study from 2004 to 2008 by the National Resources Defense Council “there is no assurance that just because water comes out of a bottle, it is any cleaner or safer than water from the tap.”[8] The use of a reusable personal water bottle is a trend that came out of an environmental demand for the reducing of waste. Although personal water bottles had been used for years, under a new ideological context they have been appropriated with the idea of limiting unnecessary material consumption. Brands such as Klean Kanteen have marketed and refined the idea of a reusable water bottle claiming that they provide a “safe alternative to plastic or lined aluminum bottles” with “no paint or plastic,” and that their product is the “first BPA-free stainless steel water bottle.”[9] Based on these clever advertisements, it can be argued that they were simply reflecting on the desires of the public around them. The good design for a “healthy, safe, earth-friendly alternative” that made their phone ring “off the hook to fill orders,”[10] predated Klean Kanteens entry into this market, giving insight into how good design can grows out of societal trends and become branded by a company.

Good design is enigmatic, but real. On the surface, the use of good design as a label or selling point comes from the elite. However good design does not come from the views of a few, but by analyzing the gradual developments of societal trends that manifest from dissatisfactions with the constructed environment.



Meikle,Jeffrey L. Design in USA. Oxford History of Art, 2005.

Neil, Dan. “50 Worst Cars of All Time.” 2007.,28804,1658545_1658498_1657866,00.html (accessed 3/20/11).

Marks,Terry. Good Design. Massachussetts: Rockport, 2009.

Hall, Peter. “A Good Argument.” Metropolis, 3, 2009, 73-75.

Burney,Jan. Ettore Sottsass. London: Trefoil, 1991.

Sottsass,Ettore. Design Metaphors. Barbara Radice. New York: Rizzoli, 1988.

“Bottle Water Blues.” 2001. (accessed 3/22/11).

“The History of Water Bottles.” (accessed 3/22/11).

“Klean Kanteen Our Story.” (accessed 3/22/11).

[1] Miekle, Deisign in USA, pg 150

[2] Time, The 50 Worst Cars of All Time, 2007

[3] Marks, Good Design, pg 65

[4] Hall, Metropolis, pg 75

[5] Burney, Ettore Sottsass, pg 13

[6] Burney, Ettore Sottsass, pg 77

[7] Sottsass, Design Metaphors, pg 1