Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Quality Design and Classy Style

The word "design" has become as casually mis-used as the word "quality" -- both have come to mean something good, as in good design and high quality, in business and marketing speak. To say something is "quality" is like saying something tastes. How does it taste? What kind of quality? Low quality? High quality?

Merriam-Webster's cites the more collquial definition ("being of high quality"), an adjective instead of a noun, as coming into use in 1936. It still rankles some of us.

Likewise this more casual use of the word design. We need to be more aware of how we're using these terms, lest we start thinking only well-designed things are actually designed at all. Anything made is designed, whether consciously or not.

I thought of all of this again when I read an article called "What if Apple is Bad for Design" on the superb design blog Design Observer. Note here that the word is being used as a description of a trade or discipline, and not to snobbishly describe something one merely thinks is good design.

In the article, written by designer Thomas de Monchaux, there's a rant about the terminology, but it's not exactly the same as my rant:
First, there is the corruption of the word "design" itself, as it's generally applied to an Apple object. What distinguishes your iPod from your brand-x MP-3 player is not design: that brand x machine also is distinguished by design. By bad design. What is unique to Apple is more accurately called "style": a clear signature vocabulary of forms and materials, superabundant to the mere requirements of function, that convey a certain sensibility, atmosphere, association, vibe. Of course, all those rounded corners may aid in manufacture and structure, but they also say in a comfortingly Jetsonian way: "I'm from the future, and so are you." It's the familiar tension between Modern and Modernist, in which a particular high style is mislabeled as "design," and a corrupted understanding of the phenomenon of design is misrepresented as an additional "feature" of an object. The danger here is the implication that design can be reduced to a characteristic of an object, and not the animating spirit behind all its characteristics in total, (and, thus, the notion that an expensive detail that can be dispensed with by the practical-minded).
De Monchaux is distinguishing between design and style, which makes me realize that my anti-quality and anti-design rant is a losing battle. Might as well complain about the word "stylish" not being specific enough about what sort of style, or about saying someone is "classy", when you really mean high-class. Okay, so our language tends to turn general terms into specific ones.

But I'm left with de Monchaux's distinction between design and style. Jeffrey Zeldman, a blogger for the software maker Adobe, had a similar argument:
Many young web designers view their craft the way I used to view pop culture. It's cool or it's crap. They mistake Style for Design, when the two things are not the same at all. Design communicates on every level. It tells you where you are, cues you to what you can do, and facilitates the doing. Style is tautological; it communicates stylishness. In visual terms, style is an aspect of design; in commercial terms, style can communicate brand attributes.
Later, he says something else, something that reminds me of some of the toothbrushes that don't make it into my famous toothbrush collection:
When Style is a fetish, [Web]sites confuse visitors, hurting users and the companies that paid for the sites. When designers don't start by asking who will use the site, and what they will use it for, we get meaningless eye candy that gives beauty a bad name — at least, in some circles.
Toothbrushes, like car stereos and sneakers, are the victim of garrish, constantly changing style with little attention paid to design. They are all a lot of flashing lights and neon colors, but very little in the way of ergonomics, function, and cohesiveness.

Back to Mr. de Monchaux and the discussion of Apple products. He writes:
The good design of the iPod is not to be found in the high style that shapes its material form, but in the inspired interface between that physical object and the information design and the software embedded therein.
That's what I'm talking about. The problem with good design is often that consumers become so happy with a product that they don't want to replace it every season.

The solution many product designers have, says de Monchaux, is to have their products "annually tweaked in ways that stray far from anything one would arrive at from first principles." A toothbrush gets a tilted or split head, angled bristles, more colorful handle, and every permutation imaginable, only to distract consumers into spending more and replacing earlier.

De Monchaux's essay is ultimately about Apple's design problems. "If you round too many corners," he writes, quotably, "you lose your edge." He isn't happy with the new iPhone design; he makes it sound like it's design hastily, and that Apple is slavish to its own style quirks to point of sacrificing good overall design.

It's all a reminder that the way something looks often trumps what it does and how it does it, and how we all like shiny things.



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