I recently gave a tech talk to a group of engineers. To capture attention and blatantly abuse stereotypes I used decided to start the talk exploring some ideas about design using beer. These are some rough crib notes from the start of the talk…
In English there are two meanings for the word design. If you introduce yourself as a designer, most people will probably imagine your job being about drawing and deciding the look or aesthetic of something. This is the subjective aspect of design, different people may like or dislike a design based on their personal sense of taste or preference of style.
The flip-side of design is the act of creating of something with the purpose to achieve a specific activity or goal. Because we have a measurable outcome this quality of design is objective and unlike taste or style we can compare it to alternative solutions and make judgements if it is better or worse.
To show the difference between these two qualities of design think about the design of three types of beer glass.
A Belgian beer glass is designed to hold a specific volume (a marking on the side shows the bartender when they have reached the exact point) and the shape is tapered to keep the aroma of the head.
The stein has thick sides to withstand mighty Bavarian toasts while the chilled glass will keep a litre of beer cool for the time it takes to drink, and the large handles allow a skilled person to carry up to five in each hand (look for huge biceps in München).
Finally, the party cup is made of inexpensive materials that can be thrown away instead of washed the next day, and they are tapered to easily stack within each other and take up as little space as possible.
Those are all objective qualities of the glasses design that you can evaluate, and perhaps improve upon.
But when people look at a beer glass they rarely deconstruct it and evaluate it on the merits of it’s purpose (unless perhaps they are designers), instead people have a subjective reaction based on their personal experiences and cultural cues. For example, for each of these glasses, you can probably easily imagine the environment you’d be drinking in, how much you’d be drinking, the quality of the beer, how much of a hangover you’d have the next day.
Your experiences, and what factors are important to you will inform your preference for each of these glasses. In the exact same way, a designer will use typography, color, language and imagery in the same way to affect how their design is perceived.
When designing it’s important to examine your work with an understanding of both these qualities. For design-as-purpose, what actions does your design support, and how well does it achieve that goal? For design-as-style what cultural cues might be triggered, and does the design make aesthetic sense in it’s greater context?
In practice the subjective and objective qualities of design don’t exist independently, but more as ends on a continuum with each influencing each other, especially as conventions are established over time. For example cultural expectations for newspapers to use a serif typeface for better readability can bias an online newspapers to do the same.
It’s important to understand which parts of your design are design-as-function and which are design-as-style and to be evaluate each appropriately. The grey area where they meet can be the most rewarding where functionality has become established as a convention (like how it’s expected to identify yourself online with a unique username and secret password — but more on that in another post!) This is the space where innovation is waiting to happen.