Design Is…

I just finished reading John Maeda’s The Laws Of Simplicity, a short, thoughtful book about simplicity and design. While it’s goal is ambitious and I don’t wholly agree with all its tenets, the book left me feeling good about design. John’s positive energy really comes across and it had me thinking about what good design is really all about.

Design is that weird craft that is partly utilitarian and partly an expression of the creator. But beneath all that, what is design? Everyone is a designer in a sense. But what separates good design from bad design? You can create a wildly expressive, captivating product that leaves one who interacts with it fuming with frustration. What’s missing there?
What’s missing is empathy. Good design is about taking the time and energy to see through another’s eyes and create something that sympathizes with how they think. At the risk of sounding hokey: Good design is thoughtful and compassionate. The beneficiary of a good design experiences something very unique. A good interaction experience creates an emotional bond and loyalty to the creation that is really, if you stop and think about, a bond with it’s creator. “Someone took the time to think about what I need and worry about how I think.”
Design in its broadest sense is forethought. Good interaction design is forethought and consideration about what others are going to experience before they do so. Everyone’s seen that scene in countless movies where a character comes home and finds a candlelit dinner all beautifully prepared. Good design is anticipation.
Defining bad design also helps highlight what good design is. Bad design is selfish, unsympathetic and self-centered. Bad design makes end users feel abandoned, left alone to wade through the maze before them with no help in sight. It sometimes even leaves them insulted, embarrassed and often frustrated. In this case, the end user met the creator and he found him to be rude and patronizing.
Product managers and marketers often wonder why products with more features and better performance fail behind others. They put the latest hardware and software in and wrap it in the fanciest packaging. Giving customers more stuff is only half the picture. What they really want is your forethought and patience in learning how they think and delivering things that are in tune with that. If you do that, you can give them less and still win them over.

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