Successful design

A challenge to define “successful design” was lobbed by @Modenus to several of us rather cantankerous voices in response to her post on “bad design.” Not ones to back away from a challenge, we all agreed to write a blog post on each of our sites defining successful design. Mine is here; please read the others in the challenge; Paul Anatar, Veronika Miller and Richard Holschuh.

My first reaction to successful design was; “is there any other kind?” Later that day while mowing my lawn, the linkage for the self-propulsion on my lawn mower fell apart and the answer was clearly, yes. There is a lot of lazy design out there, some of it staring back at me in pieces on my mower deck.

After thinking about design through several passes of my lawn over a couple weeks, all the while staring nervously at the repaired linkage on my lawn mower, I’ve realized two maxims that have driven my design work. There are probably more, but I don’t have the patience to write more and I may have already bored you insufferably.

– Successful design applies the Dreyer Principle (my words)
– Someone has to pay for the printing

The Dreyer Principle
Back when I was young and thought I knew everything, I stumbled upon a study of Ingmar Bergman which quickly led me to Carl Dreyer. Carl Dreyer was a Danish film director from the 1920s through the 60s. As most Danes are, he was a stubborn man whose view of the world was the only one that was true. I suppose most people who have vision and rise to greatness in any field are as stubborn. Or perhaps it is mostly a Danish* trait. The story about Carl Dreyer goes as such:

Dreyer was making a movie and it included a set of a kitchen. His producers were pressuring him to shoot the scene with a modern kitchen. So, he went and got a housewife and told her ‘money was no object, just make this space the best kitchen she could dream up.’ And she did, putting in every modern convenience of a late 1920s kitchen. Then Dreyer sat her in a chair in front of the kitchen she had created and started removing items, one at a time, with the instruction that she tell him the exact point the set was no longer a kitchen. He had removed more than 90% of the set when she stopped him.

I don’t know if the story is true or not, but judging from his films, the commercial exuberance of the 1920s and my own experience with clients who wish to load up simplicity with feature bloat, I’d have to say that at least the spirit of the story is true. He probably had thousands of arguments about design throughout his career. Judging from his body of work, I’d guess he won them all.

Successful design simplifies the experience to its basic function. The easiest design solution is to bolt a feature or an attachment to the side of something, but then the essence of what that thing is gets interrupted, jarred and distracted. If the feature is necessary, it is far better to continue to work a design and integrate the feature as part of the piece rather than clutter the set. Deciding the minimum of what is necessary to define a thing is design; bolting things together is just lazy mechanics. For example, iPod vs Zune; iPhone vs Blackberry; this finished, edited post vs the 10,000 word first draft you will never read.

Paying for the Printing
Back when I worked at a newspaper, I was given the fresh artists to break in. Since the paper didn’t pay top dollar, it usually didn’t get artists with a lot of experience. Sometimes, they were fresh out of design school.

Artists are not taught print shop skills, so they have no idea how much pre-press work goes into making their designs work well enough to print on a press at 53lpi, 100dpi with a dot gain of 30% or better. They have no idea how to manage their chokes and spreads, that they can’t simply mix RGB images with CMYK and that a C100M100Y100K100 may look like a really rich black on a 300lpi coffee table book, but it will rip newsprint to shreds on the blanket. In short, nobody taught them their designs must be printable. And that somebody pays for that.

So, their first day was always in the print shop, loading paper trays, understanding how to adjust ink on the rollers and learning little tricks like wrapping a bit of card stock under the plate to force a spread on a key color to mask register when the designer did not account for dot gain. At the end of the day, their back hurt, their fingers bled and they sweat a lot. But they started to understand how to design working backwards. They started to understand how bad design decisions early on made what they perceived to be solid work unwieldy or worse, unusable.

Great designers work backwards from the physical constraints they work against. That is not to say they are limited by them; far from it. But they understand how they work and are able to extend them. Years ago, a designer was constrained by what a physical press, die cutter and binder could do. Now, a web designer has a lot more freedom from physical constraints, but is challenged by the explosion of options the user demands. But in each case, the designer knows the end product well and works from the user forward.

For a bathroom fixture designer, this means you have to be able to clean the sink. If a sink looks nice, but is not maintainable, the design fails. If a couch looks cool but can’t weather a wet dog, the design fails. If a house built on the side of a cliff slides off because the architect did not understand soil composition, the design fails. Nobody gets points for great blueprints. Successful design gets produced; art stays on paper.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve to know what broken lawn mower linkage has to do with design. The linkage solved the problem of moving the speed engagement gear on a flywheel to adjust the speed at which the mower moved. When the linkage broke, the mower went into hyper-fast mode when the default could easily have been slowest. Hyper-fast rendered the mower almost uncontrollable. In addition, the connecting bolt pushed up through the attachment arm and bolted at the top with a nut that vibrated free when it could have easily been positioned downward so gravity would assist it in staying in place should the nut vibrate free. The designer solved the problem, but clearly was never a victim of broken linkage (paying for the printing) nor did s/he choose the simpler solution, i.e., gravity (Dreyer Principle)

Does any of this make sense? Comment if you must.

*My experience with the several dozen Danes I know tend to put all of them in the upper extreme on the stubborn scale. Your experience may vary, but probably won’t by much; they are very proud of their ability to be right about everything.


9 Replies to “Successful design”

  1. Do you walk with both feet on the ground? Your take on successful design is excellent because it honors simplicity and function. I cannot tell you the amount of times I’ve been attracted to strong, beautiful, inspiring design only to have the item simply not function, or not function well. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world it would be if the designer had actually used the item in all its iterations before they actually put a price tag on it. This needed to be a 2 part answer because if it were only a matter of creating something refined to its essence it would be art. It is “paying for the printing” as well that gives us successful design. Made perfect sense to me. Thank you.

  2. Excellent. My first reaction was that good design is expensive. You need a good, experienced designer to develop a good design. One who understands and is sympathetic to the thing being designed. Engineers who actually USE the things they design tend to get better quicker than the ones that don’t (based on observations of software engineers). The military have a level of electronics they buy which they call “Tempest”… I could tell you what that means, but then I’d have to kill you. You know how that goes. Tempest specs are good design because they meet a certain set of needs. But you could still design a badly conceived product to meet Tempest specs. I think you nailed it, “good design” is “good” in the context of usage. Once that graphics designer understands printing, they may still do a rotten layout. But without understanding printing, whether the layout actually works is up to chance, and, no matter how nice it looks, it is not “good” design. I buy that. ((Hey, I took the time to read the blog, of COURSE I had to comment!))

  3. @JoAnn Locktov @euonymous Hell has a special level reserved for engineers who design stuff on paper but never bother to use the stuff themselves. I’d like to lash the engineer who designed my mower to the handle, pull that pin on the self-propelled lever and watch him being dragged across the lawn in 90 degree heat πŸ™‚

    Expensive is paying one designer to design something another has to do over. It is almost always more cost effective to design it right the first time.

  4. I have never understood the logic of designing something that does not perform its function. And I absolutely do not understand how software engineers can go through life without learning how to type! But because they, and the other people who work on computer designs clearly do not type, we have the caps lock key under the tab key, so it gets hit a lot by accident. You can say that about a lot of the designs we have to put up with these days.

  5. @joseph Mr. Qwerty is rolling over in his grave obsessing about all the damage he has inflicted. And Mr. Dvork just won’t shut up about how much better he is. πŸ™‚ Thanks for chiming in. It irritates me when I get code back all riddled with typos on the variables that I have to live with ad infinitum simply because the programmer did not take the time to do it right the first time. Interestingly enough, though, programmers also have pens and paper that make typos at the same rate.

  6. Well written indeed. I firmly believe in the working backwards mentality when learning. All of our designers must spend time working in our shop, carving, pre-fitting, routing and, yes, installing. That way, they begin to learn what is possible, what reaches the extremes of possible, and what simply may not be worth the additional time and liability in the shop. Very much enjoyed your post. Yes, it must work to succeed.

  7. Yes, I believe you hit the nail dead center on its head. Your statements here “…If a sink looks nice, but is not maintainable, the design fails. If a couch looks cool but can’t weather a wet dog, the design fails. If a house built on the side of a cliff slides off because the architect did not understand soil composition, the design fails” is exactly, to me anyway, what makes a successful design. What’s the point of the aesthetics if the function of the design fails to work as intended.

  8. Well stated. As a Landscape Architect, I like the distinction between Design and Art. Excellent.

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