Seven Qualities of a Good Designer

To design is to assign form to content, to order experience, and to facilitate meaning. It is to “transform prose into poetry”. A designer then, both imagines and mediates. And a designer achieves goodness—beyond commercial achievement and the adulation of clients and peers—by aligning herself with “what design is” at its essence.

The Orion Nebula The Orion Nebula

To design is to assign form to content, to order experience, and to facilitate meaning. It is to “transform prose into poetry”1. A designer then, both imagines and mediates. And a designer achieves goodness—beyond commercial achievement and the adulation of clients and peers—by aligning herself with “what design is” at its essence.

Thus, popular opinion may say little of the merit of a designer; much more for his charisma, rhetorical ability, or other effects entirely unrelated to his aptitude for design. It is here, in the wake of our post-modern “liberation,” that we fail to see its limits. There is no accounting for preference. But to feel a thing is good is quite different from it actually being good.

Admittedly, there may be a number of suitable solutions for a given design problem—each satisfying the brief accurately and skillfully. And all designers are imperfect practitioners. But when the rationale that undergirds the entire practice of design is nothing more than the whim of taste (as some would believe), how can anyone be surprised when work is fickly rejected because “I don’t like it.”?

If we are to speak at all of good designers, we must invoke an external standard. We should appeal to the “democracy of the dead.”2 Traditions may be reimagined and reapplied so that we learn from the mistakes of our predecessors while correcting our own. How then might the qualities of a good designer be described?

“There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth.”

1. Good designers are inquisitive.

Children acquire the ability to speak by hearing words being spoken. So it is in design. Before a designer can proficiently manipulate form, she must look and see. This general interest or curiosity benefits content as well as form. The most dexterous designers can move comfortably through a variety of subjects—drawing out interesting metaphors, parallels, and connections. Their work is richer and more meaningful for the breadth of their inquiry. It assumes the dimension of real people, places, and things.

2. Good designers classify themselves as communicators.

If design is communication, and the designer an intermediary for meaning, then there is little place for personal preference. A designer may prefer a solution for the balance of its construction, or the legibility of its typography, but not because it suits her. Style is better understood and expressed within the vocation of commercial art.

3. Good designers favor cosmos to chaos.

To design is to organize, to shape, to form. To favor order is less a question of preference and more an unalterable facet of design. To be reconciled to it is simply to understand the first of Paul Watzlawick’s five axioms that “one cannot not communicate”.3 While the designer may employ chaos and disorder as her means, she does so not at the expense of meaning, but of clarity.

In this way, order may also be “truer” in terms of pure aesthetics. When designers are attuned to fundamental mathematical structures—especially those structures most often manifest in the natural world—they begin to tap into something essential and enduring. To prefer chaos for its own sake is to prefer silence to sound; it is to be anti-communication and anti-design.

4. Good designers deconstruct the complex and simplify the convoluted.

To dissect a compound notion is to explore its deeper parts. And through an intimate knowledge of these inner workings lies the possibility for an elegant and surprising rearrangement. It enables a compression of form that would enrich each figure and ground with maximum meaning.

5. Good designers understand the context of their work.

Communication occurs on the micro level (e.g. this sentence) and the macro level (e.g. the Mercedes-Benz brand identity). To understand the context of a single communication or series of communications is to know what came before and to anticipate what will follow. Moreover, it is to understand the tone and relationship between sender and receiver, and the evolution of that relationship over time.

Approached differently, context also refers to the setting in which the message will be received. This has to do with physical location, medium, culture, and neighboring messages—whether audible or visual. (Consider this: A beige billboard backed by a sandy hill does little to be noticed.)

6. Good designers respect their audiences.

A designer’s role demands comprehension of both sender and receiver. Beyond primary information, that understanding consists of deeper insight into their personal identity, meaning, and values. It must manifest itself in communications employing a visual language (not the visual language) that aids in shared meaning between sender and receiver. I’m not suggesting that a particular form or stage of culture must solely (or narrowly) define the tone and content of design. Culture defines. But it is being defined. If designers are to create communications that connect with recipients, they may bend and shape normative visual languages, but they should be cognizant of what people are willing to receive versus that which they will reject a priori.

7. Good designers grasp their limits.

Every designer is bound by his intrinsic ability to perceive and do. Every designer is constrained by extrinsic variables such as time, budget and the judgment of vested parties. Good designers grasp these limitations—composing apt solutions despite (in certain cases, because) of them.

1 Rand, Paul, Design Form and Chaos (New York: Yale University Press, 1993), 3.
2 Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane, 1909), Chapter 4.
3 Watzlawick, P., Beavin-Bavelas, J. and Jackson, D., Some Tentative Axioms of Communication. Pragmatics of Human Communication – A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies and Paradoxes (New York: W. W. Norton, 1967).

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