Inoffensive and Homogenous Design

“Good design is as little design as possible” says the tenth and final commandment on Dieter Rams’s almost biblically celebrated principles of good design.

It’s easy to imagine that Herr Rams would be pleased with our present day consumer products in terms of design simplicity. Phones, tablets and PCs are distilled to their absolute essentials, rectangular, round-cornered pieces of glass, running the ubiquitous stripped down and “flat” user interface. No matter what they sell, the functions they perform, or the manufacturer, for the most part, they all look the same.

Has the design of our technology-driven lives reached the core essentials Rams talked about? Have they truly reached the end of the road, to the point where there’s nowhere new to go but to collectively iterate on the same “essence“ over and over again? Can we blame frameworks such as Bootstrap or Material Design?

Material Design is a Google set of design standards to unify all their product efforts. It is a riff on previous implementations of flat design and minimalism. It is enhanced by layering, saturated colors, friendly imagery, physics and animations, and is focused on universal adaptability, responsiveness , and an easy to follow framework and set of flexible templates. This was meant to aid the chaotic design mess their OSes were experiencing at the time of its launch (2015).

Fast forward to today, Material Design is everywhere, from a wide range of corporations’ websites, to dating apps, to “Water for Africa” non-profits, to mommy blogs. Unfortunately, its widespread use is not due to its solid, well thought out principles and implementations, but mostly for its easy-to-use (literally download, copy, paste), pleasant, inoffensive, coat-of-paint aesthetics. Superficial, fast-food design at its best. “Little design as possible” is as literal of an interpretation as you can get.

The point above is not meant to undermine Google, its design system, or the people behind Material design. If anything, its popularity speaks volumes of its usefulness. It’s more about the lazy trend of replicating a specific aesthetic and haphazardly applying it in a one-size-fits-all fashion. It’s reproduction without intent, without questioning if the aesthetic is an appropriate vessel for the message. The aesthetic is often falsely advertised as new and modern, when it is nothing but a set of interchangeable pieces made by different people for different uses.

Another of Rams’s commandments about product design is “Good design is honest.” A product’s design must not deceive its customers and a designer must be honest with the design process itself. Simply replicating other implementations is not design. Each specific application needs its own solutions, grounded on solid principles. Trying to circumvent this leads to dishonesty in the design.

Design should be opinionated, not dictated by a globally harmonized aesthetic.
There should be a conscious thought process behind every design decision that carefully studies a user’s need to match with the right aesthetic solution (surprise, there’s more than one). This rigorous process should be shaped by a unique set of views and experiences, pulling and constantly learning from a wide range of sources. Seeking out difference is important, particularly in an interconnected world that seeks to homogenize.

Make design selective, opinionated, and literate in its choices. Hop on the trend bus if you must, but take the wheel so when the day comes for aesthetics to be mandated through AI anesthesia, we’ll still be able to discern the human-made.

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Written by
Daniel Cornejo 16 May 2017

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