What is good design? I’ll tell you. Good design is whatever your client wants. Good design is whatever rich people like. Good design conforms to the zeitgeist.
I’ll never forget my first paid assignment in the world of design. I gingerly handed a print out to a relaxed Creative Director who’s face immediately screwed up as if suddenly suffering from internal physical discomfort. “Oooh! The bullet points look a little too big!” And handed it back to me. I skulked off back to the sanctuary of my Mac to tidy up those pesky bullets.
The very next week – I think you can guess what’s coming – I handed in a similar job with bullets to a similarly smug senior designer who, after seeing it, seemed to be struck down with a similar ailment. “Ooooh!” He exclaimed. The bullet points are too small!”
The very fact that you thought that was going to happen illustrates my point.
So many design decisions are governed not by proportion, composition, legibility, etc. But by taste.
Who says that the Nike swoosh is a masterpiece of iconic imagery? Who says that the iPod is a paragon of beauty and usability? Who says Grafik magazine is cool design? I’ll tell you. Rich people. The moral majority. You.
Don’t believe me? Then, humour me. For the rest of the day whenever you see something you don’t like, whenever you tut at a bit of “thoughtless” design, and, most interestingly, whenever you are absolutely sure that everyone in the world, no matter their background, would agree with you on some design decision, then stop. And think. What really is behind your taste?
Years of experience doing what you’re doing? Your education? Your upbringing? Other pieces of work in the same style? Yes, yes, yes. All these things, of course, we are all creatures nurtured by our environment. So where does your taste, your feeling, your instinct come in? Nowhere.
Still not convinced? OK. Consider the expression “what a terrible colour!” So one frequency of the visible electro-magnetic spectrum is better than another? So some bits of the rainbow you like and some bits you don’t?
What about those lurid designs of the sixties and seventies? Would you use them now? Garish elabourate decoration of the east? The greys, pinks, yellows of the eighties?
If you look through history at what has been considered “good taste” you’ll invariably find it has been used as an arbitrary device to make sure rich people get paid to design and poor people don’t.
A designer merely absorbs and re-interprets – just like everyone else – the only difference is that the designer believes he is actually creating. What makes him believe he’s creating something good? Because he has been told this by his tutors, peers and parents. If you tell someone something enough times, they will invariably believe it. This is the origin of “good taste”.
What designers are good at therefore is to identify stylistic elements that are “in” at the time. Not only what’s “in”, but what’s “in” with a certain crowd. What’s “in” with the movers and shakers, the great and the good, the people that matter.
And it is a certain type of person that becomes a designer. This is why most design consultants and advertising agencies in the UK are populated with white, provincial, ordinary people. Not big or small, not clever or thick, not ugly or good-looking. Invariably they share the same interests, dispositions and sensibilities: Retro clothing, guitar-based music, a premiership or championship football team, alcohol, Helvetica Neue.
All these designers are marvellous individuals, of course, but collectively and in their work they conform.