Art vs. Design, Form and Function
Good design can seem subjective. Most design award contests are expert-judged, and the judging criteria are seldom formally defined or revealed. This may afford judges lots of latitude in their scoring, but there is a cost to the rest of us. This approach can leave untrained people thinking design quality is subjective; merely personal taste. And though it can sometimes be, it certainly need not be. So let’s make a distinction, for baseline clarity.
One of the main distinctions between design and art is purpose. Art serves the artists expressive purposes, primarily. And anything done with artistic purpose is art. Art is, historically, uniquely useless. As Andy Warhol put it, “If it doesn’t make sense, it’s art.” Art is symbolic in nature. It is form for forms sake. And that can be a beautiful thing… always subjective.
Design is useful and essentially practical in nature. Design serves the purposes of others. That is, design is a craft of service, not self-expression.
If we confuse aesthetic values with art we confuse art with design, which serves the purposes of neither art nor design. Of course, anything can be done artistically. That is, with emphasis on self-expression or personal creativity. The difference is purpose and use, therefore function. Where form follows from its function, primarily, we are speaking of design.
Exploiting design as a means of self-expression is an abuse of design. It is usually an innocent mistake, however, from confusing creativity with self-expression. Good designers, unlike good artists, decouple the two.
“Design must perform in response to human needs. Design performance should be demonstrable and measurable.”
Good design is what good design does
Now that we know the difference between art and design, we can get specific about what makes design itself “good.” In sum, good design is useful design. And yes, usefulness can include qualitative (“attractive”) as well as quantitative (“usable”) metrics—the source of much confusion. Yet as good design serves people’s purposes and uses, and use means action, it can be measured by what it does. Therefore, as software experience designers, we can say:
- Thinks like I do
- Makes me smarter
- Is reliable, consistent
- Is trustworthy, revealing, transparent
- Shows me, doesn’t tell (text) me how…
- Isn’t hard to understand
- Shows me how to advance: speed, accuracy, productivity
- Tells me what I can’t do before I do it
- Allows “mistakes”
- Sees from my point of view
- Keeps getting better
- Encourages feedback, complaint
- Gets to know me
- Gives me context, keeps me in it
- Makes me feel good, happy
- Is positively memorable
I expect this entry will evolve in time. It is not, if not already obvious, intended to be comprehensive.
Beauty As By-product of Problem Solving
“I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”
Designers naturally talk about use in action as behavior, be it “user behavior,” “system behavior,” or “interactive behavior.” Behavior, though anthropomorphic in terms of human-computer interaction (HCI), can lead one to see the characteristics of good design as not unlike those of a truly good friend. And I think we can all agree, good friends help each other solve problems. And this, too, is a beautiful thing.