Does good design even matter to people who don’t think about design?

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we’re all designers to some degree. We have an aesthetic preference which influences our decision-making. We choose what items decorate the interior of our home. We choose what typeface to use when writing a paper. These choices which are seemingly passive are, in fact, active design decisions.

If you study design then you understand that it’s easy to question the design preferences of your non-designer peers. You’re able to recognize bad design when you see it, however, when it’s well accepted and widely used it’s disheartening. You ask yourself, how can people like this? How can people even use this? Do these people even care about good design? Before you spiral into dismay and begin to question whether or not your efforts to design good things for this world is even worth it, let me reassure you that even people who seemingly don’t think about design are affected by good design.

Designers, of course, have a higher awareness of design, but a truly great design can even slip under their nose, which is an even greater case for those with a lesser awareness for design. Good design is less likely to be noticed, but it’s certainly felt. With its opposite, bad design is more likely to be noticed and is also felt. It almost appears as though good design receives the short end of the stick because it doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves, however, good design it meant to be totally transparent—“it just works.”

How can unnoticeable design positively affect ordinary people?

Let’s look at Jim, an ordinary guy who works a 9-to-5 in a cubicle who you’d never suspect to care or even think about design. Every morning, Jim takes the bus to work, but every time the bus pulls up it’s so far away from the curb that Jim has to make a small leap from the sidewalk into the bus to avoid stepping on the road. This is especially a problem when it’s raining out, but Jim never even thinks about it—he just takes it as a part of his daily routine. Although Jim doesn’t think about it, it takes a toll on his subconscious. Every time the bus comes, it’s another obstacle he has to get past just to get to work—this is unnoticed bad design.

When Jim finally makes it to his work, he walks up to the entrance of the building, opens the door and walks in. Did you see where the good design experience happened? Probably not because all I said was that Jim opens the door and walks in. What isn’t recognized is the ease with which the door opens. The smooth turn of the doorknob, and the subtle click the door makes as it closes behind him so that he knows it closed securely. If every time Jim came to work, he had to wrestle with the door just to get it open then we would certainly recognize that the door was poorly designed, but in this case the door doesn’t even seem to exist (and the good design is seemingly transparent).

Once Jim makes it to the 3rd floor, he walks down the hallway and enters his company’s office on the right. Jim makes his way through the rows of cubicles greeting his friends as he passes by. He eventually makes it to his cubicle,  hangs up his coat, and then plops down into his chair. Jim has a long day ahead of him, but he can work an 8 hour shift—most of which is spent sitting in his chair—and is able to do this day after day without trouble. Jim would never recognize it, but the fact that he can work long hours pain-free is the result of good design.

Design is hidden (everywhere)

Design, in and of itself, is an experience, and most of the time, we don’t recognize design because of that—we’re simply experiencing it. Good design is unobtrusive and doesn’t present itself as design because it’s natural and transparent. Good design adds substance and value to utility. Does the design make it beautiful to look at? Does it make the activity more enjoyable? Does it make the task easier? Does it work? Do you even know it’s there? These aren’t the universal questions of determining good design, however, most people aren’t asking these questions which is why good design isn’t recognized or talked about. People are too busy experiencing such great design to even notice that it’s there. Good design is going to be taken for granted, as will bad design, so don’t think for a second that it doesn’t matter. Design affects us all in ways that we never expect or ever notice.