Theory Week Five – What is Design?

In this session we read an extract from ‘What is Good Design?’ by Alice Rawsthorne

Summary of ‘What is Good Design?’

pp 45-60

Rawsthorne, Alice, (2013) Hello World, Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)

In this chapter Rawsthorne looks at examples of both good and bad design, and through these examples she elucidates what good design is.

The chapter begins with William Morris’s golden rule to have “nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” This succinct and elegant rule was Morris’s ‘contribution to a debate that has preoccupied designers, design theorists and design historians ever since.’ (45)


Rawsthorne first explores a key component of good design: the fulfilling of function:   ‘…is it fit for purpose or, as Morris put it, useful?’ (46) and lists examples of designs which are not: ‘over-complicated phones; malfunctioning ticket machines; uncomfortable chairs …’ (46) Two recent purchases spring to mind for me: an ornate 1930s replica phone, which wasn’t cheap, and which ceased to function as a phone after around 20 uses!  (the brackets that kept the handset in place broke off), and some sticky back ‘coat hooks’, which I bought to hang very light things on (much lighter than coats!), and which have since fallen on the floor.

Sometimes something can fail on other criteria for good design, but can still be classed as such because it fulfils its function so well. Rawsthorne cites Google’s logo (‘Design purists tend to loathe it.’) (48), and the ‘doodles’ that replace it on special occasions: ‘looking cringy is one of the doodles’ functions.  They are intended principally to make us like Google.’ (48) She also cites the Post-it Note in its original pale yellow as an example of good design.  It is so useful that it can afford to fail on other elements (e.g. colour and touch).

Beyond Function

Rawsthorne goes on to point out that usefulness alone is not always a sufficient condition of design ‘because we expect it to deliver something else too.’ (49)  She cites book covers and film titles as examples. As well as protecting the book pages a good book cover ‘should also sum up what the book promises so compellingly that we cannot resist reading it.’ (49) Good film title sequences ‘not only seduce us into wanting to see the film, but heighten the experience of doing so.’ (49)  It also seems important to me that the design of a book cover or a film’s title sequence should not over promise!  If the content of the book or film aren’t as good as their cover or title sequence the reader or viewer is likely to be pretty disappointed!


Rawsthorne then considers beauty, which has historically been regarded as integral to good design: ”excellent appearance’ and ‘progressive performance’ were chosen as the key criteria for inclusion in the first of the Museum of Modern Art’s ‘Good Design’ exhibitions.’ (50)  Traditional notions of beauty are nowadays being questioned as integral components of good design.  The reasons for this are manifold and complex, and Rawsthorne explores some of them:

Role of Art

The changing role of fine art has played a key role in breaking the mantra of ‘use plus beauty equals good design.’ Since modernism, and I would also argue postmodernism, fine art has on the whole ‘been expected to be challenging and provocative (50) … if a painting or sculpture is simply beautiful, it can be difficult … for us not to suspect it of being trite.’ (51)

Subjective Judgement

There are many difficulties in assessing the aesthetic qualities of a design compared with assessing its usefulness.  Rawsthorne states that aesthetic judgements are ‘always subjective’ (51) and ‘deciding whether or not we find something visually pleasing is fairly straightforward.’ (51)  Understanding why we like something is much more complex, and Rawsthorne stresses that since the birth of the digital age this has become even more complex: ‘Consuming our daily diet of information and entertainment from the pixelated images on a computer or phone screen changes how we see the world.'(52)

Fear of Frivolity

Another reason for our now uncertain attitude towards beauty in design is a ‘fear of frivolity’ (53).  Rawsthorne argues that it can be difficult to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of something when ethical and environmental concerns are now so paramount.  Reflecting personally on this I do often get pangs of green guilt when enjoying the design of (some of!) my daughter’s plastic toys or of new clothes that she might destroy with pens, paint or muck!

Suspicion of Conventional Beauty

Rawsthorne also cites our ‘growing suspicion of [conventional] beauty’ (53) as a reason for our reticence.  Cosmetic surgery, computer generated images, and the proliferation of photoshopped images all contribute to our growing suspicion of what is held up in mainstream media as beautiful.  She cites designers who have responded to conventional notions of beauty by challenging this received opinion. These designers have sought beauty from ‘imperfection or impermanence’ (53), or through fostering an emotional connection with the objects they design.  This returns me to Morris’s golden rule: I have often thought that things with sentimental value should also be included.  This more complex concept of beauty seems to allow for this: we have emotional connections with some objects and this can make them beautiful to us.


Rawsthorne goes on to describe originality as a component of good design.  It is not a necessary component but is often ‘one of its most compelling.’ She states that ‘design is often at its most seductive and most convincing when introducing us to the new.  The first bicycle. The first motorcar. The first aeroplane …'(55) I would also add that revolutionising an existing design is pretty exciting, sometimes exciting enough to be the subject of a film.  I’m thinking here of ‘Joy’, a film about Joy Mangano, the inventor of the ‘Miracle Mop’ (the intriguing character of Joy, as well as her mop, was obviously also important for the subject to be film-worthy!)


The next important component Rawsthorne explores is integrity: ‘Qualities such as honesty, clarity, sincerity, decency, soundness, incorruptibility and other components of integrity have been central to the debate on good design since Plato’s Early Socratic Dialogues.’ (56)  She explores symbolic integrity: ‘Whenever BP has been embroiled in ecological disasters … its sunflower logo has been ridiculed as insincere and inappropriate.’ (56) and structural integrity: ‘Anything that is unduly fragile or unreliable, like the perpetually jamming M-16 rifle, fails this test.’ (56) She also points out that ‘Nor can design have integrity if … it is simply showing off.’ (56)

Paramount are ethical and environmental integrity: ‘If we have any reason to feel guilty or uncomfortable about the ethical or environmental consequences of a design project – or the way it was conceived, developed, manufactured, shipped, sold and will eventually be disposed of – it cannot be considered to have integrity, and is therefore disqualified from being good design.’ (57)

An example given is the ubiquitous monobloc plastic chair: ‘As well as being inexpensive, it is compact, portable, stackable and easy to clean .. but it is also cursed by grave environmental flaws.  If the polypropylene breaks, it is impossible to repair and because it is not biodegradable, landfill sites are doomed to be stuffed with the corpses of unwanted monoblocs for decades to come.’ (58)

This highlights a responsibility of designers to thoroughly consider the ethical and environmental implications of all aspects of their designs.  It also highlights to me how good design is a relative concept:  historically environmental integrity has not been considered a component of good design, but in the world of today it seems integral.  Assessing the environmental and ethical integrity of a design is not, however, entirely straightforward: ‘One person’s certainty – or even their idea of an acceptable compromise – is often another’s bone of contention.’ (58)

Integrity of context is also important.  Rawsthorne gives the example of Arne Jacobsen’s Egg and Series 7 chairs manufactured by Fritz Hansen, which are widely considered to be exemplary 20th century design.  The manufacturer recently agreed to sell thousands of these chairs to McDonalds: ‘But selling those chairs to McDonald’s was risky for Fritz Hansen. Would they still be associated with modern luxury, or with Ronald McDonald, McMuffins and McNuggets?’ (60)  Rawsthorne goes on to explain how McDonalds also added cheaper copies of the designs in countries where the original designs were no longer under copyright, and also commissioned the design of new chairs which were essentially a pastiche of Jacobsen’s original designs.  Rawsthorne concludes that ‘by using Jacobsen’s chairs in such a hostile context …[they] turned a textbook example of good design into a cautionary tale of the danger of forfeiting design integrity.’ (60)

Group Discussion

In the session we discussed the concept of design in groups. Design for us is:

  • creating things that both serve their function and are aesthetically pleasing. The former is far easier to assess.  It is likely to be an objective fact as to whether something serves its function.  Assessing whether something is aesthetically pleasing is much more difficult! It can vary depending on individual taste and historical context. Further, ‘aesthtically pleasing’ does not necessarily mean conventionally beautiful – a much wider definition is meant.
  • finding solutions to problems.
  • function lead – designers always need to be thinking ‘does it work?’
  • understanding the user/client and responding to their needs. I also think it’s about managing the user/client’s expectations, and maintaining positive relationships with them.
  • having an idea and testing it.  Things that are well designed should be tested and should normally be durable (most products, for example, are no good if they work really well for a bit and then fall apart/stop functioning).
  • multidisciplinary. For example in interior design it is useful to have an understanding of architecture, planning, construction, geometry, carpentry, art history, aesthetics, product design, and probably more!

Self Directed Work:

Visiting a local site and assessing it for both good and bad design.  I chose the Millenium Galleries:

Good design:

  • Clear, large, signage with a sans serif font.  This type of font is considered more accessible for people with dyslexia.
  • Lots of benches.  This is important in a gallery – they can be tiring places! It also makes the space inviting and inclusive.  Anyone who needs a rest can usually find somewhere to sit in the Millenium Galleries.
  • A lot of the space is white and bright with loads of windows and natural light.  The  building therefore feels great to walk through.  It always feels calm to me, even when the shop is full of people.
  • Accessible doors, lift and escalators for people with mobility difficulties, or children, or lots of shopping! It feels like it has been designed inclusively.
  • This ethos of inclusivity has continued into the exhibition space where there are lots of activities for children related to the exhibition.
  • The lighting in the cafe looks stunning! It manages to be a very inviting place which is difficult to achieve in such a large room with a high ceiling.
  • The site links to the Winter Gardens, which gives it a great sense of connectedness.

Not so good:

I feel like i’m nitpicking here as on the whole I think the Millenium Galleries is really well thought through.  If I had to comment on anything it would be:

  • more inclusivity in the design.  For example there are some raised letters on the lift, but as far as I can tell there is not much else that makes the gallery easily navigable for visually impaired people.  Also in terms of inclusivity something i’d love to see in more public spaces is better toilet facilities for children (mini toilets!) Parents of very young children can find it pretty stressful taking their kids out, and knowing that there was a potty substitute available could lessen that stress.
  • more interesting planting outside.  In the warmer months the cafe opens up to the outside and at the moment I think it’s not all that exciting out there! The gallery is also on Arundel Gate, which is a busy bus route.  I think more protection from the noise and pollution with more planting would be good.  I think they should get Rosie Bines on the case!


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