Principles of great design

By Keith Noble, director at Forepoint.

I love it when something comes along, re-stoking your passion for what you do and reaffirming that you ARE on the right path (see imposter syndrome:

BBC Four and BBC Arts are currently marking the centenary of Bauhaus and investigating the power of design in new season of documentaries. I caught the first of the programmes recently, profiling the brilliant German Designer, Dieter Rams. For 50 years, he has left an indelible mark on the field of product design, with his iconic work at Braun and Vitsoe, and his influence on Apple.

Although I work in a different field of design, I love the fact that the principles of great design form the cornerstone of everything that people interact with. Design is a human thing, it’s a must if you want to connect or interact with people and improve their worlds.

The way that we, as designers and creatives, tackle the challenges and problems we’re set will never and should never change. Of course, channels, mediums, materials, technologies and audiences evolve, but the basics really don’t.

I often think that with the evolution of ‘new and shiny’ technologies, the plethora of self-professed ‘experts’ and the sheer volume of ‘design’ out there, the water really has been muddied. Combine that with the belief that everyone’s a designer, whatever their background. It has created a lot of ‘smoke and mirrors’, unnecessary confusion and poor work in areas where good design is most needed.

The overwhelming urge to tell everyone everything at breakneck speed, or over-engineer a solution to demonstrate ‘value’ is commonplace, but it simply doesn’t work. The most poignant statement from the Dieter Rams documentary was: “Less, but better”. Bravo Dieter! But you’re preaching to the converted here. Our challenge is to evangelise this most basic of design principles to every client we meet, apply it to every brief we’re set and ensure that everything we create hits as close to that mark as possible.

Easier said than done, of course. Boiling down (but not dumbing down) ideas and thinking deeply to unearth the right design solution is what we do. We keep stripping away and stripping away the unnecessary until the answer is staring you in the face. However, the art is often to get clients to appreciate the same thing. Often, they have their own demands, pressures and deadlines weighing on their minds (and weighing on their KPIs). They simply need to ‘get stuff out there’. We get that. They’re often asked to crack a lot of nuts using the most basic of nutcrackers, being asked to try to do, say, or achieve too many things in one go. This just compounds the problem (adding to the already muddy water) and ends up not really addressing any of the challenges they had in the first place.

The way we navigate through the muddy water is through collaboration, education and respect for one another’s expertise and experience. We have to work together WITH clients, not simply FOR them. We need to share knowledge and understanding, in BOTH directions. Finally, but most importantly, we have to develop a trusted working relationship. If we do what we do well, a client does the same – bingo! Job’s a good ‘un.

It’s not rocket science is it? Well, sadly it appears it might be, judging by some of the poorly designed communications, products and touch points that exist – I’m sure we’ve all experienced them.

Ten design principles

Dieter’s 10 design principles are things we ALWAYS apply to everything we do. Here’s how we interpret them:

  1. Good design is innovative– it should always try to think outside the proverbial box and push the boundaries, however little. All progress is good progress.
  2. Good design makes something useful– it should be fit-for-purpose, right for the audience and the job in hand.
  3. Good design is aesthetic– it should always look and feel good – and natural.
  4. Good design makes something understandable– it shouldn’t need to be explained, require a manual, or need translating.
  5. Good design is unobtrusive– it should always appear effortless and comfortably familiar.
  6. Good design is honest– it should always try to cut through the cr@p.
  7. Good design is long lasting– it shouldn’t be a slave to transient trends. The best ROI in our view is shelf-life, a great idea always lasts.
  8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail– it should stand up to interrogation. In fact, some of the best bits should be in the tiny details you uncover.
  9. Good design is environmentally friendly– it should be the first question asked. Do we actually need this? The second is, if we do, how do we make it better for the planet?
  10. Good design is as little design as possible–­ it should always make the complex simple.

I’m by no means the next Dieter Rams, or even claiming to be. I’m not even his long-lost nephew twice removed. But, if you want a couple of little design takeaways from me, try these for size:

“Good design should be inclusive, not exclusive”

“Good design is for everyone – but not everyone can do it!”

That’s why I do what I do and why we at Forepoint do what we do.

Missed the programme? Don’t worry, it’s available on BBCiPlayer
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