Tenets of Good Design, Part 1

  

Note: Dan Blanchette is taking the week off. The following is a reprint.

Design is organization. And without organization, we have no plan. We have noise, a cacophony. Let’s cite some examples.

Let’s pick music, for one. When you listen to a tune you like, it’s pleasant to your ears. The blending of instruments and the sounds they make produce something you find easy to listen to. Ever think of music as design? Well, it is. It’s organization of the notes on the sheet of music and the instruments to play that music—musicians call it “orchestration”. But it’s still design.

How about automobiles? There are cars people think of as great looking, others not so much. Why is that? A Chevrolet Corvette is a car most people would agree is a pretty sharp piece of work. A Pontiac Aztec, not so much. This is not comparing apples and oranges here: it’s merely an example of good v. bad design. One is pleasing to the eye, the other not.

How about this one: Let’s say we have a neighbor named Doris who has a bunch of framed pictures on her living room wall that have no purposeful arrangement. There are various gaps among the items, and upon asking Doris how she arranged them on the wall, she might’ve said,”Oh I just put them up in no apparent way. I just hung them wherever.” This is not design. Now we have our neighbor Gina, who has a similar arrangement in her living room. But this arrangement has maybe a close-quarter arrangement or grid pattern to it that makes it a much more pleasing thing to look at. She has a design.

One of the first things you learn in design school is how to compose an arrangement. There are terms like “dominant” and “subordinate” pertaining to shapes in that arrangement; but for the purposes of this article, let’s say you have a bedroom in which to arrange the furniture. You naturally place the bed first (because it’s the largest piece), then the dressers and nightstands follow. That’s pretty much how you design any arrangement. The placement of the most dominant first: that theme that flows throughout the music, the curving contours of that car, etc.

These are examples of cohesion. Good design has cohesion. Cohesive design is something you see, something you hear, even something you feel.

Most people (non-designers) can sense where and when they experience good design. But most people don’t know why they know it. But they feel it.

My cousin is a home builder. He has a good design sense, but he can’t define it. He just knows what “feels” right. And he’ll explain that in his homes that one thing “flows” from another or that the proximity—nearness—of one room or item to the next makes things easier for the prospective owner. To him, this feels like an organized plan. And he’s right. He’s a planner, an organizer.

Design is intentional.

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Image Intensity and Anxiety

      

Design is all about organization. Priority in that organization is paramount, because the designer needs to set about where the attention lies in an orderly fashion. Almost like the way a movie unfolds before your eyes, that order is necessary to reveal which comes first in the story.

But in the case of some areas in our daily lives, we come across cacophony. Noise. And that noise can be seen quite readily at what they used to call the newsstand, or today, at the cash register of any retail food store. The magazines on sale here are like a carnival, where the barkers are all yelling for your attention to get into the ring toss and win your partner a stuffed animal.

The Us Magazine at left is typical of fan magazines’ throwing everything at you right on the front cover. Hurry, buy it now to get the lowdown on your favorite stars’ latest anguish. Or wedding. Or life lesson. But you have to buy it now. That’s what the publishers will hope you do.

For me, this poses a slight uptick in my blood pressure. From a design standpoint, this frantic assemblage of information can barely squeeze onto the 8″ x 10.5″ confines. It’s all yelling at you in yellow and pink headlines to convey the things you just have to have in your mental library, immediately. The casual observer will glance at it and not know what to make of all the fuss.

Back in 1974, People Magazine came out, a new kind of fan magazine. With Mia Farrow on its first issue, it was designed with one simple image relating to the featured article inside. All the other articles in the issue were listed on the cover, but without photos. The designers felt that simplicity was enough to carry the attention of the buyer. And they were right. Those designers could still see the art involved in making news.

People Magazine no longer looks as elegant as this. It looks more like Us Magazine.

And then we have the example at right. It’s not a fan magazine, but you get my drift. This is a relatively recent issue of Golf Digest, which of course feels like a comparative breath of fresh air.

With the explosion of the Internet, Facebook and Instagram, you wonder how these fan magazines can keep up with the constant barrage of attention-seeking news blasts on the ‘Net and television. Well, this is how they at least try.

The difference is that—with TV—you can turn it off. At the checkout line, it’s in your face.

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