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What Design Really Means

Design is an imprecise term. Especially when used in regular language.

For instance, someone who believes "design" is quantified solely by a product’s visual appeal might be disappointed when they get a set of gray boxes and lines — a wireframe — as a deliverable created by a talented designer.

Design is not principally measured by a product’s visual appeal; its aesthetic qualities.

It’s also measured by how it was planned and articulated, how it was built, how it functions. It’s about the design’s ability to improve upon the current reality.

The commonplace view that a "good design" is anything that is beautiful and visually appealing is wrong. It’s wrong because a good design is more than that. The visual quality of a good design is just a portion of the equation.

Steve Jobs explains this point well, once saying:

"People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."

Gmail has a good design because it’s able to intelligently discern between contextually-relevant emails versus ones you may not want to see right now, and because it gives you the ability to search thousands of archived emails accurately and quickly.

But you will never find Gmail being featured in any web design gallery, even though these galleries purport to have the goal of inspiring designers toward creating good designs.

Dropbox has a good design because it works flawlessly in the background without any fussing about, and because it ambitiously tackles a huge everyday problem people have.

Airbnb has a good design, not because the site is on all the popular web design galleries, but because of the company’s ability to reliably and conveniently provide a new form of accommodation for travelers.

Design is the creation of a plan for the construction of an object; a plan that represents how the product should be built.

Design lies at the crossroads of art and science, but both roads are equally important, so design is also about how we deal with that challenge.

A product’s visual appeal — its aesthetic attributes — is merely a part of its design.

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About the Author

Marcin Treder is a UX designer, the CEO of UXPin, and author of several UX design books (such as UX Design for Startups).

This was published on Apr 28, 2014

10 Comments

Josiah Sprague Apr 28 2014

This is so true! As a person who does design for a living, I absolutely hate it when people hand me something and tell me to work my magic to make it look good. I wish there were a synonym for design that wasn’t so misused.

Robert Walter Apr 29 2014

Wasn’t this essentially captured a century ago in the
maxim of good design: “form follows function”?

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
Steve Jobs

massimo Apr 30 2014

Finally a design article that puts everything into perspective – Pure Awesomeness!

People often don’t consider the ergonomics of a site when commissioning it, just that it looks pretty … thanks for exposing the true nature of good design!

Angelina May 02 2014

It’s also measured by how it was planned and articulated, how it was built, how it functions. It’s about the design’s ability to improve upon the current reality.

thanks for the great blog

Shawn Rubel May 05 2014

Any webpage should clearly indicate what it does, any additional elements that are merely there for ‘information’, can be a real ‘distraction’ and scare people away. I use only the necessary stuff on my sites and blogs, and it works out great.

Kieron Smith May 07 2014

Form follows function indeed. Airbnb is a great example, and it helped me get a cheap holiday :) Bonus

Aram Koukia May 08 2014

Good points..
Design is an evolutionary and iterative process. I mean it should be. Or I wish it was…
Thanks for the great blog..

Great article Macin! Keep up the good work.

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