Design Values

In my post on moral design I have highlighted the link between design and morality and have postulated that only moral design can ever be good. If my argument is granted, then the next stage is the formation of design values. Design values are the application of general moral values on the specifics of design, which in turn allow the formation of general principles of good design.

Just over a hundred years ago, designers fought against shoddy craftsmanship and designs unsuitable for mass production. It was an era of transition, from the world of hand-crafted goods and historical styles, to a world of modern mass production techniques that required a completely new approach. Those who kept imitating historical styles with new methods created goods that were bad on both counts: not ideal for mass production, and neither comparable in quality to the hand-crafted goods they were emulating. Progressive design schools, like the famous Bauhaus, rejected this and fought to carve a new design philosophy. With ideas such as the rejection of historical styles, a simplified aesthetic, and standardization of parts, modern designers began to create goods that were honest in their construction and suitable for the new age.

The battle for a new design aesthetic created for the mass production age has been won, but the problems of design are not over. Today we face a set of new challenges, a new set of forces that once again act on our designs and lead us towards producing inferior goods. I have covered several of them already in my recent posts, so I will summarize what some of these forces of bad design are here. We can in turn reverse them to derive principles of good design. The values that dictate the principles will also come to light. In truth, the value always lies before the principle, but because morality is seldom discussed in design the relationship of your values to your work is seldom clear or apparent.

  1. Manipulative design – design that aims to exploit the user in some way for the gain of the designer, or designer’s client, exploit being the key word. There is a line beyond which simple influence turns into manipulation. If you’re not withholding any information from your user, while applying the tricks of influence, you’re probably on the safe side. If you’re hiding something from the user that might change their decision, you’re manipulating. Additionally, if you’re designing your product with built-in psychological triggers, like the current crop of social networking games that are designed to be as addictive as gambling, you’re working on manipulative design – unless of course its function is fully disclosed beforehand, as in the case of some gamified services, which are therefore not manipulative. Reversal: Honest design – design that doesn’t try to exploit the user, but fully respects them and provides them with what is advertised. This is especially important in the world of software where there are a lot of opportunities to exploit user behavior.

  2. Distracting design – our software and devices have become easier to use over the years, but they’ve also become much more distracting. Modern consumer technologies are advancing in three ways: 1) becoming more accessible, 2) becoming more mobile and 3) increasing the amount of notifications they send from all the apps we use. All three combined lead to us to a state of perpetual distraction. Sites and apps want to keep us using their product, so they use the notification services to pull us back, all the while escalating the problem, shattering our focus and wasting our time. Reversal: Focusing/Time-saving design – design that cares about its user’s time and focus, and aims to save it instead of taking it away. Apps that are designed for focus take away all the distractions, including the distractions of fiddling with the app itself. Time-saving apps don’t want to pull you back into the app all the time, nor send you pointless notifications, but rather to give you what you need and let you get on with your day.

  3. Obsoleting design – design that aims to obsolete an older model of the same product, to make it less fashionable and less desired in order to get the consumer to buy the new model. Planned obsolescence has been created in order to boost commercial growth, but at what cost? Companies that knowingly work to obsolete old products are essentially creating delayed rubbish: goods that will become unwanted and thrown out in a short time when the next model comes out. Reversal: Timeless design – design that is everlasting, not in the sense that it will never perish, but in the sense that it will always be wanted, and wanted not because of some dire need, but because the designer has created his work with his heart, he gave a gift to the world that lightens it and enriches our lives in some small way, and so we keep hold of such goods until the end when the forces of nature deliver their final blow.

  4. Authorless design – design that disregards the judgement of the author for that of the masses. Examples of this are online blogs A/B testing various headlines to see which ones attract more page-views, and sites changing key elements of their design purely based on a higher conversion rate. I am liable to be misunderstood here, so I will note that I am not against A/B testing, nor am I against wishing to boost conversion rates. There are essentially two types of testing: 1) usability testing (or user testing) that teaches the designer what works and what doesn’t based on gained knowledge of human behavior, and 2) conversion testing that moulds design towards that preferred by the impulses of the masses. The first is wholly good, and the second, while not necessarily bad, and certainly needed at times, is of an altogether lower order and leads to inferior design. Reversal: Authored design – design that is built on the taste, experience, reason and judgement of an individual, or a team of designers working closely together.

By deriving principles of good design from the problematic sorts of design that we face today, we can also see what values drive these principles: respect for the user as a human being, not a another cog in the machine or a wallet to empty; respect for their time, since time is after all their life; respect for truth; respect for the reason, experience and taste of the individual, not the irrational impulses of the masses; a disdain for waste and efforts lost in the creation of goods that are to become waste.

You may not share these values. These are my values, and what I have used to derive the principles of good design above. You don’t have to accept them or follow them, but they serve as a rational foundation on which a clearer and more meaningful design philosophy for the modern age can be constructed, and a discussion on principles of good design naturally leads back to a discussion on, and in some cases a formation of, values.

I am not going to dive into a discussion on morality here, the purpose of this post is only to illustrate the direct connection and practical application of moral values in modern design, and how principles of good design are to be derived from those. If you disagree with the specifics, a discussion on both sides of the topic is welcome and needed, i.e. a discussion on what values our society should hold, and the specifics of how these values are to be upheld in the work we create.

Published August 2012