Charles Harries

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Effective design

On distinguishing good design from effective design.

I like Jim Nielsen’s interpretation of Good Design as requiring the context of the designer: Design is Good when it fulfils its purpose and intent.

I'm always reminded of a module on New Criticism in a literary theory class at McGill at times like this. I like the idea of judging a work outside of its context from an aesthetic point of view, but I realise that it's almost totally impractical in reality.

Sometimes the intent can be misleading: the intent of a poorly-presented unsubscribe button is usually the opposite of its actual function: not to stop the user receiving emails they no longer desire, but to reduce the sender’s unsubscription metrics. In that sense, the unsubscribe button is very well-designed indeed, since it serves the purpose it was designed for—even if it’s actively at cross-purposes to the end user.

Same goes for e.g. hostile architecture: those leaning benches you see in railway stations aren’t designed to help people rest, but designed to prevent people sleeping on them. They’re very well designed, even if they’re ethically dubious. Design is not moral—it’s just a measure of fitness. (Designers, however...)

I think for that reason I don’t like passing judgement on whether design is “good” or “bad”, since that carries some semantic baggage. Is the Like Button good design? What about ads in children's iPad games? Instead I think in terms of Effective Design: design that actually does what it purports to do.

Good Design, Jim Nielsen

Design