What the heck is “good design” any way?

If you decide to look up “good” in an online dictionary the first listing that comes up shows 55 different definitions. Morally excellent, righteous, high-quality, well-behaved, kind, educated, refined, healthy, cheerful, skillfully done, and financially sound are just a few.

When looking at how the word “good” is used in graphic design a wide variety of interpretations also arise.

In 1975 IBM legend Thomas Watson began his lecture at the Wharton School of Business with these words, “Good Design is Good Business.” This principle has led many successful businesses to make creating strategic branding and design a priority and ultimately may have helped in them their success.

Apple’s founder Steve Jobs place in the business world is legendary and was founded in part on relentlessly building beautifully designed, useful things that anyone could use.

Dieter Rams offers 10 Principles of Good Design for product design that include innovation, usefulness, aestethic, honest, understandable, unobtrusive, and more.

David Berman’s book, Do Good Design, addresses the issues of morality in graphic design. The book is an excellent resource for looking at the power that graphic design has on cultural influence.

Lucienne Roberts, author of Good: An Introduction to Ethics in Graphic Design, also explores issues of morality, drawing readers into a debate about professional “goodness” versus personal “goodness” and the relationship between ethics and design practice.

The magazine Good and website Good.is describe good as something that works—what is sustainable, prosperous, productive, creative, and just—for all of us and each of us.

AIGA’s “Design for Good” initiative provides tools and resources for designers who work on projects that focus on addressing community needs. Their tagline says, “Changing the world may or may not work, but wouldn’t you rather design trying?”

In a recent post for the Daily Heller, “Design for Good or Bad,” Steven Heller raises the question of what good design is. Heller asks why designers can’t practice “public good” as an integral part of design’s mission without labeling it as just “good.” He also brings up the point that some “bad design” may be due to lack of talent rather than an issue of morality. What does it mean if this type of “bad design” is done for good causes? Is it good, or is it bad?

How should we define good design? Maybe the best thing that graphic designers can do is to delve further into each of these topics and come up with new and more specific ways to classify “good design.” If they don’t, the catch-all phrase may end up diluting the message in its wake.


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