Good design isn’t good enough

2019 IIT Institute of Design Student Commencement Address

By Evan Chan (MDes 2019)

I’m going to let you in on a secret: there’s a certain type of question that will cause any student of the Institute of Design to freeze up, stumble over their words, and feel unsatisfied with the answer they give you.

Many even reach their graduation day without a well-defined answer! I'll pose this question to you all now.

“What is good design?”

Now, of course, the best way to answer is to start with, “It depends…” but this is a question that every student who has gone through the Institute of Design, or ID, has had to grapple with. MDM students have had one year at ID to consider this question. Master of design, or MDes, students have had two years. MDes + Foundation students, like myself, have had a whopping three years to contemplate it and I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned.

Firstly, good design is HUMAN-CENTERED.

It starts by understanding the lived experiences and needs of a certain group of people before creating solutions for them. The focus isn’t the designer, it’s the people being designed for.

Good design is CREATIVE.

It widens the lens to welcome all sorts of possibilities, from mild to wild. No idea is too silly or outrageous. Allowing for creativity can lead to solutions that are both novel and delightful.

Good design is VISUAL.

It translates complex concepts into easily understood formats that are enjoyable to the eye. It takes the information stored in people’s heads and allows them to see it, organize it, and use it.

Good design is TANGIBLE.

It takes solutions that don’t exist yet and makes it feel like they do to illustrate what they might look like in the real world. Whether it’s something concrete like a physical product or abstract like a high-level system, good design allows new ideas to be understood, refined, and tested.

Lastly, good design is ITERATIVE.

It welcomes experimentation and failure with the expectation that each round will reap new learnings that will lead to a better end result.

While these five characteristics form a decent response to my initial question, I’m thankful that here at ID I’ve had the opportunity to explore topics that elevate good design to great design. The world we live in is a complicated place filled with complicated people. When addressing simple problems, good design is sufficient. But when taking on more messy challenges, these five characteristics aren’t enough—design must. be. more.

So what is great design?

In addition to being human-centered, creative, visual, tangible, and iterative, what I’m defining as “great design” adds two deeper, more nuanced characteristics. These two have completely shifted my mindset and will define the impact and longevity of my work for the rest of my life.

Firstly, great design is THOUGHTFUL.

It considers earnestly and thoroughly the unintended consequences of the solutions it creates, and doesn’t shy away from accepting responsibility for those unexpected outcomes. It grapples with the trade-off between short-term gains and long-term impact. It champions equity and ethical behavior to give help to those who need it most.

Sustainability is a great example of this thoughtful approach. Towards the environment, sustainability entails the thoughtful consideration of the entire lifecycle of a product and seeks to find opportunities to minimize its impact on earth’s ecosystems. Patagonia, for example, actively tries to reduce consumerism (that is, its own sales) by developing ways for customers to repair damaged garments themselves and to easily resell unwanted used garments. Towards society, sustainability connotes a compassion towards the most vulnerable populations with the goal of building more resilient and economically stable communities. Project for Public Spaces is a great example, which endeavors to transform public spaces into neighborhood hubs to foster community bonds and improve quality of life.

Thoughtfulness is required to be able to do the right thing.

Great design is CRITICAL.

Rather than accepting things as fact, it questions motivations, probing to uncover the orthodoxies that inform the behaviors and values of our society. It’s aware that every product, service, platform, or system carries with it a particular set of underlying value judgments that define what it’s intended to accomplish. For example, the technological marvel in our pockets has made our lives infinitely more convenient, as information and access to countless services is literally at our fingertips. But consider the smartphone’s impact on mindfulness, which is to experience the present, live in the moment, and be free of distractions. When was the last time you were waiting in line, had access to your smartphone, and didn’t pull it out to start browsing? Or how about the last time you were sitting on the toilet? Although that may not be a moment you want to live in. Behind the design of these devices is a bias inherited from the Industrial Age that believes that a more convenient life is a better life.

I’m not saying one thing is better or worse than another. My point is that as designers, we cannot be oblivious to these subversive biases, accepting them as the only reality. We must be critical to poke at and reveal what’s underneath the surface. Only then can we design things that either perpetuate existing norms or purposely combat them.

It is imperative we be thoughtful and critical because to be a designer is to be in a very privileged position. Designers are asked to fix things that are broken in our world, as if we have the answers. We’re expected to know what people need and create new things that meet those needs. In a real sense, our job is to shape the world people live in. This is a tremendous responsibility. We would be doing a huge injustice to the people who will be touched by our creations if we don’t approach our work in a thoughtful manner that is critical of the present to build a future that’s better for everyone.

I’ll end with an encouragement to my fellow graduates: wherever you go after today, be that person who asks the difficult questions others want to sweep under the rug.

Be that person who cares about more than doing something cool or making a name for yourself.

Be that person who says, “Yes, we can make this, but should we?”

To have a lasting, positive impact on this world, we’ll have to be great designers. Good luck!