And the answer is…

On Monday evening I went to an online design talk, and for the first time ever of attending such things, the organiser put us into break-out groups for 5 minutes at the start. I wasn’t quite sure why this was happening, and couldn’t see a connection to the talk, but I went with it.

In groups of 4 or 5 we were tasked with discussing ‘what is good design?’ It was interesting to hear what some of the others in my break-out had to say, and there was plenty of chat about aesthetics, with one person stating good design was minimalist.

I took polite umbrage with this, questioning why good design has to be thought of as having anything to do with such subjective criteria. I proposed that function should be seen as the first essential criteria in any such arbitration, adding that things didn’t necessarily have to look good to function. I gave a poor example to illustrate my point, thinking in the moment as I was, and said the health and safety graphics on a fire extinguisher could be argued as being good design as they successfully serve a lifesaving function, but that they certainly ain’t pretty.

To be fair, others too mentioned function as being an objective in what can be classed good design, but they did so in the same breath as mentioning visual finesse. With my mind in critical mode though, I raised another question—who should be the judge of good design? In developing this thought further, I suggested that the end user of an item of design should be one of the participants in answering the question, and that designers shouldn’t be the sole arbiters of this. The user may not be tutored in graphic design, or even interested in it, but they are the ones who can categorically state whether something designed for them works or not. Therefore they should, by rights, have a seat at the table in any such debates.

The issues with the aesthetics angle in any decision making are multiple, as this consideration relies on one’s taste, background, class, upbringing, culture, age, and a lifetime of visual indoctrination of one sort or another. As a design educator I endeavour to put these things to one side when talking to a student about their work. If I didn’t, they would seek to emulate my tastes for the sake of a better grade, and the entire cohorts’ work would end up looking very similar and predictable. We have a mantra on the course of not promoting a ‘house style’, and it is something I attempt to stay alive to at all times in discussing the pros and cons of a piece of design, whether by a student or when showcasing professional examples. I’ve seen the end of year shows of some courses who do have a ‘house style’, or they teach to a very specific area of the graphic design industry, and when viewing project outcomes, I do not see the student in the work, and often I don’t see the audience either, outside of a generic demographic who would respond to specific aesthetic trends. It results in a monoculture of visual responses that doesn’t represent the diversity of the society we live in. 

These thoughts chimed with something a director of an Ipswich based graphic design firm said to students only the week before the talk I attended. As part of a Life After Lectures lecture series I run, Mark Offord of Firebrand Creative offered up a piece of advice to final year students. He said, (and I’m paraphrasing heavily here), too often he sees portfolios of student work that emulates the echo-chamber of social media in its aesthetic approach, and he championed how important it was to recognise good design for how it functions to the audience it is designed for, regardless of whether it is to a student’s taste or not. He said it is OK to like what you like, but don’t let algorithms tell you what good design is. He was urging students to cast their nets wider than Instagram when looking at design, and to question what makes something good design. I couldn’t agree more. Not only was this timely, given the breakout talk discussion, but also pertinent for me I to pass on Mark’s advice to first year students this coming Friday, when I give my final lecture of this academic year—a lecture on contemporary design trends.

Coming back to Monday; while the break-out groups and discussion point had little to do with the talk we had all signed up to, it formed part of a thought-provoking connection for me, and I’m now wondering whether we need more active discussions at online design talks. Having written about the benefits of the increase in these talks recently, both here and on Eye magazine’s blog, I’m now pondering the role they can play in critical debate beyond the simple Q&A session at the end of a presentation where only the confident get to set the agenda for any discussion.

Published by Nigel Ball

Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design

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