Design Philosophy (Part 1: What is “Good Design”?)

Design is important. Not just in games, but in everything. Design is how we make whatever is happening in our minds into reality, and it is also how we consciously improve. It’s an important part of things being functional, of things working, and of things being fixable when broken. It helps things work and it helps us understand what’s wrong when things don’t work. Design is important, and because of this, good design is inherently worth pursuing, and bad design something to be avoided.

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But it’s not enough just to say that something needs to be designed well. If we don’t know what good design is, we can’t recognize it. Good design is not simply “does [thing] do what it was intended it to do”, because there are reasons to intentionally design something badly. It’s worth recognizing the difference between something that is designed well and something that is intentionally designed badly, because they’re ultimately very different things. So, what is good design? Here’s an attempt at a general statement:

Good design is when the thing in question accomplishes what is desired in an efficient, reliable, intuitive, thorough, positive, and inspiring way without contradicting its own goals, being dishonest or misleading, or being unnecessarily obtrusive or overwrought.

It’s a mouthful; I’ll break it down:

  • Good design accomplishes what is desired.
    • This is pretty simple. If an gorgeously artistic spoon does not hold liquid, it is not a well-designed spoon, no matter how pretty it is.
  • Good design is efficient.
    • Efficiency is a big part of what separates “design” from “good design”. A user interface that requires you to navigate fifteen layers of menus to find what you’re looking for is a design, but a UI that is more carefully arranged or predictive is a superior design, because it helps you get to what you’re looking for quickly.
  • Good design is reliable.
    • It’s not enough that a designed thing should accomplish its goal. It needs to be able to do so repeatedly, in such a way that it can be trusted. A game might be fun, but if it crashes constantly or behaves erratically, that is a problem.
  • Good design is intuitive.
    • Watch a child pick up Legos for the first time. They fit together in an obvious way, pegs up, and as you add more pieces the complexity level rises, but each new piece works off of the same principles introduced already. Similarly, certain doors that open only one way have a horizontal “push” bar across the width of the door, and a vertical “pull” handle on the far edge. These make it obvious how to interact with the door, because the horizontal bar is easy to push, and the vertical handle is situated to provide maximum leverage for pulling. Even without signage, it is clear whether one needs to push or pull the door.
  • Good design is thorough.
    • It’s important to address the various ways in which a thing can be used. A game that provides features for deaf or colorblind players is naturally better designed. An automatic door that only triggers from one side doesn’t take into account people approaching it from unexpected directions.
  • Good design is positive.
    • What I mean by this is that the experience of interacting with something should uplift and please the user. A well-designed set of controls is not only usable, but a joy to use; the new PS4 controller is comfortable and pleasing just to hold and use, compared to the original Xbox controller that was equally functional, but not satisfying or pleasing to hold for most players.
  • Good design is inspiring.
    • By this I mean that it sets a standard for future design. The iPod’s interface had a massive impact on mobile device interfaces, inspiring the iOS interface which in turn has had a huge impact on other mobile devices. Compare the experience of the system interface on a Nintendo DS with the system interface of an iPhone; one you want to see everywhere, the other feels dated and clunky.
  • Good design does not contradict its own goals.
    • A fairly obvious one that tends to only come up with more complex designs. Altering a business process with the goal of saving money is not a good design if it requires enough additional overhead to run that it obliterates the money savings. More controversially, a diet plan that rewards good behavior with “cheat days” in which the good behavior can be eliminated on the “cheat day” is poorly designed.
  • Good design is neither dishonest or misleading.
    • If a design suggests that a choice you may choose to make is just as valid as another choice, then both choices should be equally viable in practice. Similarly, a design should be clear about its own capabilities and neither suggest functionality that it lacks nor obscure functionality that it has.
  • Good design is neither obtrusive nor overwrought.
    • Rube Goldberg machines are amusing, but are intentionally inefficient, take up a lot of unnecessary space, and use a lot of moving parts (with a lot of potential failure points) to accomplish something often very simple. They’re fun, but (intentionally) not good design. Similarly, a door with a recording that shouted “PUSH” or “PULL” depending on which side of it you were on would be obtrusive.

These things, together, set a high bar for good design. Good design is hard, and it’s much rarer than you might expect, especially because so much research has been done to figure out what makes good design, both from a mathematical and from a psychological standpoint. A lot of things fall shy of the mark, and I think it’s worthwhile and sometimes even important to understand the difference between poor execution and poor design.

Tomorrow I’m going to look into that a bit more; if we know what makes for GOOD design, why do we have BAD design? What would motivate us to create bad design intentionally, and why does that happen?

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