Everywhere you look today — from buildings and landscapes, to commercial products and public services, to Web sites and print products — design has taken on new meaning. Design isn’t just about decoration; it’s a critical component of how we communicate, collaborate, and compete. But behind the “look and feel” of any good design are a host of carefully conceived principles: fundamental propositions that define the essence of the design. The trick for all businesspeople today is to learn those underlying rules — to think like designers. With that in mind, Fast Company asked 15 top designers — creators of buildings, furniture, products, Web sites, costumes, and labels — to deconstruct something that exemplifies great design to them. More important, we asked them to tell us what we can learn about the art of design. Read their thoughts, and then take out a sketchbook and start designing your own world.
Founder and chairman
Conran Holdings Ltd.
Good design is probably 98% common sense. Above all, an object must function well and efficiently — and getting that part right requires a good deal of time and attention.
The Dyson vacuum cleaner is a good example of that commonsense approach to design. Why? It’s bagless. People always moan about vacuum-cleaner bags. Every so often, you have to remember to buy more. The bags are often hard to find, and no two models of vacuum cleaner seem to use the same bag. And they’re difficult to remove and to replace. So the attraction of a bagless cleaner is obvious. Debris is collected in a clear chamber, so that you can see how much you have picked up. You then simply remove the chamber, empty it, and put it back.
The Dyson’s “livery” colors of gray and yellow — design is 2% aesthetics — recall the colors of medieval craftsmen’s guilds, giving the product an aura of reliability. The colors also make Dyson vacuums universally identifiable, like London’s red double-decker buses or New York’s bright-yellow taxis.
I particularly like Dyson’s DC02 and DC05 cylinder-model vacuums, which look like robots or giant bugs. They make you smile — which is an unusual response to a household appliance. But again, the aesthetics are almost accidental. The slightly squat appearance is an example of form following function: The Dyson can sit on a stair or negotiate a corner much more easily than most other cylinder vacuums can.
Sir Terence Conran founded the Habitat chain of stores and is chairman of Conran & Partners, his London architecture and design firm. He is one of the world’s leading designers, furniture makers, restaurateurs, and retailers. The first Dyson vacuum cleaners were sold in Japan in 1991 for $2,000 each.
Los Angeles, California
The boundaries between design and art constantly intersect. But design, for me, is never frivolous. And one of the essential elements that differentiates design from art is function. Take, for instance, the Citroen car. I’m not a real car person, but I remember being completely entranced when I saw this car for the first time. It was the perfect mixture of practicality, beauty, mystique, and sophistication. It had a European sensibility that to me, as a young American, was exotic. The car had beautiful lines and looked sleek and compact. What’s more, the inside was roomy enough to seat four people comfortably.
But functionality doesn’t have to obviate another essential design element: whimsy — almost fantasy. I became most aware of that when my parents took me to watch environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude install their piece, “Running Fence,” in the mid-1970s. (In fact, that was when I first saw a Citroen.) “Running Fence” was an 18-foot-tall fence made of heavy-woven white nylon fabric, which is usually used for air bags in automobiles. The fence ran through the countryside in northern California for 24 1/2 miles — eventually running right into the Pacific Ocean.
“Running Fence” enraged a lot of people in the community. They saw it as pointless and weird. But it was my first exposure to art outside of a museum. More important, the piece was an elegant and fantastical gesture. And if you let it, fantasy can offer potent reasons both to design and to create.
Arianne Philips (email@example.com) prefers fantasy over reality in her work: She has designed costumes for such films as “The Mod Squad,” “The People vs. Larry Flint,” and “The Crow,” as well as for such musicians as Madonna, Courtney Love, and Lenny Kravitz. She is currently working on designing beautiful but functional costumes for the “Charlie’s Angels” movie.
Founder and CEO
I don’t believe that there is a list of principles that make a good design. But I do believe that a good design should reflect a sense of human history — some aspect of where we’ve come from. Look at Lego, a toy that mirrors exactly where it came from — Denmark, a country of thousands of islands, thousands of pieces. The “play” comes from putting those pieces together.
Legos embody pure simplicity. In many ways, they were the first digital toys — all bits and bytes. But to experience the product, you have to interact with it. Part of that experience comes from what you bring to it. The word “lego” is a combination of the Danish words “Leg Godt,” which means “to play well.” In Latin, lego means “I study,” or “I put together.” I remember my dad and I used to spend hours building these elaborate creations — circuses, cars, planes, space stations. There was no limit to what we could make with Legos.
In a sense, playing with Legos is a lot like designing: The process is slow and requires focus. A joint is missing here or there. You make mistakes. So you try something else, and that leads you to a different form, a different connection, a new discovery.
In 1969, Hartmutt Esslinger (firstname.lastname@example.org) founded FrogDesign Inc., one of the world’s preeminent consulting and design agencies with clients that include Swatch, Lufthansa Airlines, and SAP. Whether designing high-tech dentist chairs or elegant Louis Vuitton luggage, Esslinger seeks to infuse each product with his credo: Form follows emotion. Esslinger also designed the original Macintosh SE. Ole Kirk Christiansen, a master carpenter and joiner in Billund, Denmark, founded Legos in 1932.
Founder and president
Ziba Design Inc.
There are three basic principles behind any well-designed product: truth, humanity, and simplicity. To see these three in action, look at one of the icons of the 20th century — the VW Beetle. My dad had one of the first models — a yellow 1952 Bug. In college, I had a red 1968 model. It was one of the few cars in which I’ve really experienced the feeling of driving. The driver’s seat was like a real chair and totally ergonomic. The car was high, comfortable, practical, and even though I could never go very fast, I felt like I was flying.
From a design standpoint, it was an incredibly simple and honest creation. Basically, the Beetle combined three semicircles: two arcs for the fenders and one large arc for the body — pure, simple, and beautifully proportioned. And it’s so human, even down to its weaknesses — such as the heater, which never seemed to work in the old models. But we still loved the car. What makes good design? Design is not beautification. It’s a thought process — a nonlinear, spatial way of thinking in which connections are made between seemingly unrelated things. Designers are creative visual thinkers who learn to see the world differently.
Think about the Beetle: How many objects — and cars for that matter — make people coo?
Sohrab Vossoughi (email@example.com) founded ZIBA Design Inc., a product-development firm, in 1984. Some of Ziba’s clients include Nike, FedEx, McDonald’s, Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Hyundai, Coleman, and Rubbermaid. The first VW beetles were built in 1938 with a 985cc engine. They were named KDF-wagens — kraft durch Freude or “power through joy.”
Vehicle chief designer
General Motors Corp.
Sometimes the success of a design has as much to do with its physical structure as with the emotion that it evokes. That’s why the 1998 Corvette is a great design: It’s a sports car that reinforces the Corvette brand and heritage, while triggering a sense of nostalgia — the memories that people have of the Corvettes that they saw on the road when they were kids.
I still remember the first Corvette I saw. I was about seven years old, and my dad, who worked at gm, drove home in a bright-red Corvette. The car was unlike anything I’d ever seen. It looked like it was sucking up the ground! Everyone in the family took turns riding in it. And what appealed to me back then is the same thing that appeals to me today: That car just spells fun.
The design has gone through some changes since the first Corvette appeared in 1953, but you can’t mistake it. It’s still low and wide, with double tail lamps on both sides. But the new model has a back end that sits higher off the ground and horizontal vent slots that are reminiscent of race cars — a look that sports-car enthusiasts love.
Over the years, the car has developed quite a following: Corvette owners gather at meets and show off their polished engines. So in the new design, the hood pivots from the front end like a lid of a gift box. That design feature offers a great view of the power plant.
The new design is also more comfortable to sit in than past models have been. To get that low, lean look while keeping the frame rigid, the car always had a wide threshold. You had to struggle over it to get in and out. The new car’s engineers and designers found a way to maintain the frame’s strength without blocking the entryway. All the things that make the car look sleek, without compromising its technology, take a lot of work. You look at one and you wonder, “Where did they put all of that power?”
The question on every carmaker’s mind today is, “What makes a vehicle distinctive and unique?” When it comes to the Corvette, the answer is clear: the emotional response it evokes in people.
Liz Wetzel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is GM’s first female vehicle chief designer and winner of the Automotive Hall of Fame’s 1998 Young-Leadership and Excellence Award. A 13-year GM employee, she drives a bright-red Pontiac Fiero GT. Harley Earl, GM’s first designer, designed the first Corvette, which appeared in 1953.
Bobbi Brown Professional Cosmetics Inc.
New York, New York
I rarely think about design; I feel it. and I approach design more with my heart than with my head. So when I create something, I do it because it feels really good to me, not because I think it will go over well.
The design elements that are important to me are color, light, and texture. And what embodies these qualities for me are pictures of my children — or pictures of any child for that matter. What do I see and feel in those pictures? The innocent simplicity of children. How uncontrived they are. How easy. How straightforward. Those are the elements that, when they’re mixed together, give a design its staying power.
A lot of people believe that things — chairs, cars, tools — perfectly embody the essence of design. But when I look at a group of chairs, I don’t see perfection in each chair; there’s always one that’s a little more perfect than the others. That’s not the case with children.
Bobbi Brown’s company has grown from 10 lipsticks on a table at Bergdorf Goodman’s in New York City into a multimillion-dollar business. She has three sons: Dylan, Dakota, and Duke.
Graphic designer and writer
New York, New York
Take the average parking lot where every day you come across a clever device: the speed bump — that elongated, bread loaf – shaped piece of macadam lying across the pavement.
What makes the speed bump a good design? It’s a simple but highly functional object that’s foolproof. It’s not what you would call decorative — but it doesn’t need to be. There’s a purity of design to it, based on plain common sense. Often, the simplest and the most effective solutions aren’t dictated by style. In fact, the only real piece of dogma that I was ever taught in school was that form is strictly determined by the function it needs to perform. Accordingly, the generic parking-lot speed bump is a supremely elegant solution to the problem of getting people to slow down.
Take an alternative solution to achieving that same goal: posting a sign that reads, “Slow down.” With a sign, you’re faced with a bunch of decisions: What color should you use for the lettering and for the background? What shape should you make the sign? How big should it be? The beauty of the simple speed bump is that you don’t have to worry about any of those decisions.
Still, when we’re out driving around, and we come up against a speed bump, it can be a jolting surprise. Which suggests another important point: Design isn’t always a pleasing part of our lives. But as the speed bump teaches us, design is necessary — and it can be extremely practical.
Chip Kidd (email@example.com) has designed more than 1,500 book jackets for such authors as Anne Rice, Cormac McCarthy, John Updike, and Howard Stern. His design for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park became one of the most recognizable images of the1990s. The speed bump was first introduced in November 1979 in Brear, California. Federal Highway Department statistics show that these devices have reduced speeding by 10% in areas where they’re located.
Deborah Berke Architect PC
New York, New York
In 1943, Charles and Ray Eames designed a leg splint for the navy that kept an injured leg stable during transport. The splint is beautiful, elegant, simple, and functional, and it solved a problem in a way that worked for everybody. One of the most important things about that object is that when you see it, you immediately know what it is. The design makes it instantly recognizable. Too often, we confuse design with marketability — a product with a label that tries to tell us that the product is a “good” design.
The Eames splint is recognizable by its simplicity — a three-dimensional outline of a space created by a leg. It achieves its intent and its function with no extraneous moves; it’s anti-rococo. But simplicity does not mean simplistic — something that’s simplistic is made without thought.
One of the main criteria for the design of the everyday, though, is sensuality. Something that is sensual evokes a response that’s not just visual or intellectual: It’s suggestive. If you owned an Eames leg splint, you’d hang it on a wall because it’s so beautiful. But then people would ask you if they could try it on — to see how it feels. That’s sensuality.
Deborah Berke (firstname.lastname@example.org) has designed both homes and commercial projects, such as the ck Calvin Klein Stores worldwide. Berke is an associate professor of architectural design at Yale as well as editor of the book “Architecture of the Everyday” (Princeton Architectural Press, 1997). Charles Eames (1907 to 1978) was one of the 20th century’s most influential designers.
Chief creative officer
San Francisco, California
Design is not so much about the end product as it is about the process. This is especially true for design in the world of the Web, where you can’t even talk about the design of an immutable, static object. Instead, you focus on sequential, ongoing activities — a series of interactions and experiences. But more important, whether you’re talking about design in real time or Net time, the days of the solo designer independently creating an artifact or an experience are gone. The world is too complex. Taking an idea to its ultimate expression requires the effort of the entire team — a multidisciplinary effort.
And ultimately, any well-designed product or experience acknowledges the user. It’s that respect for the user that makes a design great. That’s true for a table, a chair, a book, a film, or a Web site.
A real-time product that exemplifies consideration for the user is Herman Miller’s Aeron chair. The design process stretched over a three-year period and involved intense collaboration of the entire team of designers, engineers, suppliers, and marketers. Their collective goal: Understand the users and their expectations. That cross-disciplinary approach helped them design the right solution. When that chair came out in the 1990s, it looked like it was designed for Robocop, and it looked anything but comfortable. But concern for the user motivated every design decision — and that allowed the team to have confidence in their creation.
Clement Mok (email@example.com) was creative director at Apple Computer before starting Clement Mok Designs in 1988. In August 1998, his company merged with Sapient Corp., an innovative e-services consultancy. The Aeron chair, created in 1995, was a breakthrough in chair design — and reflected an awareness of the environment: The base of the chair is made of recycled aluminum; the frame is made of recycled polymer.
President and creative director
Design is harder than people think; it requires rigor, courage, and clear goals. Without a goal, design is just decoration. That might sound like a simple truism, but with a goal in mind the discipline of design becomes ordered. Every decision is reviewed and considered within the context of that goal.
Take, for example, Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, dc. Unlike traditional monuments, the Vietnam Memorial does not celebrate war or victory. How could it? But those who commissioned the design expected to get a monument. Instead, they got a memorial to the dead. It’s probably no accident that Lin’s design was originally submitted for her funerary-architecture class at Yale.
You can see how every design decision of that memorial — her choice of size, shape, and color, and the way she chose to organize the names — reflects and responds to her goal. Like an antimonument, the memorial cuts into the ground, and goes in the opposite direction than most monuments do. In keeping with her goal, she chose black marble, which absorbs light, rather than white marble, which reflects it. That choice really pulls the design together. Even the shape of the memorial speaks to her goal: It stands at about a 120-degree angle, which makes it look like a book of the dead that is permanently open and that is meant to be read. In Lin’s organic vision, every design decision contributed to the whole. The cumulative effect: a tidal wave of sorrow. And the silence the memorial engenders is deafening.
Great design — whether it’s of a product, a service, or an event — should give the viewer an epiphany of communication and understanding. It should astonish.
Burkey Belser (firstname.lastname@example.org) is cofounder of Greenfield/Belser Ltd., a creative marketing-communications company for service businesses. In 1997, Belser won a Presidential Design Award for his design of Nutrition Facts, the nation’s food-labeling system that appears on more than 6.5 billion products, from candy bars to tuna fish. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated in November 1982; in the public design competition for the memorial, Maya Lin’s design was chosen from among a group of 1,421 submissions.
Katherine & Michael McCoy
Senior lecturers at the Institute of Design
Illinois Institute of Technology
Every now and then, a design comes along that radically changes the way we think about a particular object. Case in point: the iMac. Suddenly, a computer is no longer an anonymous box. It is a sculpture, an object of desire, something that you look at.
A friend of ours recently bought an iMac for one reason: It looks good on her kitchen table from every angle. Gone is the tangle of wires spilling out of the back. Instead, you see the computer’s clean, curved, and attractive backside. Its translucence celebrates those inscrutable internal components that most of us think of as black magic. Like the new Volkswagen Beetle, there’s something witty about the iMac’s shape and selection of colors. And it’s sensual: Its rounded form nods to nature and the organic world.
But what really makes the iMac so successful is that its form is just one part of an integrated experience. Every element — from the packaging to the advertising to the user interface — contributes to the buyer’s overall perception. The iMac’s packaging, for example, continues the visual language that Apple began with its Macintosh boxes: a large, clear typeface surrounded by generous white space. The visual identity is direct and elegant, while making the product seem friendly and accessible to nonexperts. Those qualities are extended to the advertising, which features seductive product photographs — a spectrumatic “flower” of colorful iMacs on a clear white space. The brilliance of Apple’s design: They understood that a computer, like many consumer products, can be an object of lust.
Katherine (email@example.com) and Michael (Michael.firstname.lastname@example.org) McCoy were directors of design at Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, for 23 years. Katherine’s current projects include signage for the Chicago Bears headquarters. Michael is a founding partner of Fahnstrom/ McCoy Design Consultants in Chicago, designers of the “Bulldog Chair” for Knoll. The iMac, with its 333-MHz processor, comes in five delicious flavors: strawberry, blueberry, grape, tangerine, and lime.
Founder and president
New York, New York
We interact with design on two levels: the physical and the emotional. We have a word for the physical part: ergonomics — what feels good to you. I call the emotional level “psychonomics” — what makes you feel good. The baseline of good design is a perfect balance of the two.
It’s said that form follows function. I disagree. Form is function. The two are developed together and are intertwined. In a truly great design — a design that stands the test of time — that is done as efficiently as possible. A great design has nothing more than it needs to do the job. Charles and Ray Eames’s molded-plywood chair of the 1940s is a perfect example. They molded the wood into flexible shapes that perfectly conform to your body and absorb shock when you move.
In many ways, Herman Miller’s Aeron chair is descended from that Eames chair. But the Aeron is more about performance, because it’s about action, movement, and mobility: It’s like the Indy car of chairs. But like the Eames chair, the Aeron is pared down mechanically to exactly what’s necessary. And the designers showed tremendous inventiveness when they crafted Aeron’s cushion, which uses the least amount of material needed to achieve comfort.
And that is the real art and skill of a designer: to achieve elegance in design with the highest degree of efficiency.
Davin Stowell (email@example.com) founded Smart Design, a product-development firm, 19 years ago. Smart Design is responsible for Oxo International’s Good Grips kitchen tools, which have won numerous design awards and are part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Susan Kare LLP
San Francisco, California
Since I spend a lot of time creating symbols — and trying to wrestle big concepts into small spaces — I’m a great admirer of images that convey clear meaning at a glance. The ups logo, created by Paul Rand in 1961, is a good example of that.
The logo is economical and succinct, simple yet distinctive, businesslike yet warm. It communicates the company’s essential mission, without needing a tag line to explain it — a package with a bow, just enough detail to be jaunty but spare enough to be timeless.
The name of the company is reinforced because it’s integrated into the logo, and the classic shape — a shield — makes it look official. The emblem signifies trustworthiness and inspires customer confidence. And Rand chose the colors brown and gold because they aren’t the standard blue and green that are usually found on corporate logos. Those colors make the company memorable to consumers.
The overall effect is that people get the message without being barraged with excess information. At one point, some years ago, it seemed as if all the logos that had any personality — such as the winged horse of Mobil gas stations — were being replaced by death-star shapes that supposedly looked high-tech. ups didn’t need to make that kind of update. And although the shipping business has no doubt changed since Rand created that design 38 years ago, the ups logo remains timeless and effective.
Susan Kare (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a user-interface graphic designer. She has designed the iconography for Microsoft’s Windows 3.0 as well as screen icons for Apple Macintosh, including the smiling Mac and MacPaint’s pouring paint can and pencil. Kare formerly was creative director for both Apple Computer and NeXT Inc. Her clients currently include Infoseek, Intel, and PeopleSoft Inc.
Donald A. Norman
Nielsen Norman Group
Mountain View, California
The best kind of design isn’t necessarily an object, space, or structure: It’s a process. The Container Store and all of its clones — Hold Everything and Crate & Barrel, for instance — are great examples of design as process. You can go into any of those stores and choose from a range of objects for reconfiguring your home, according to the way you live. When design is a process, it’s dynamic and adaptable.
We’ve all seen a desk made by placing a piece of wood on top of a couple of filing cabinets. Similarly, at the Container Store, I can find hundreds of different styles and sizes of boxes that I can make into chairs or bookcases or objects of art.
The best designs are always the ones that I create for myself — and that’s true for everyone. We’re all designers. When we place furniture in our homes and when we organize space on our desks, we’re designing. And that’s the most appropriate kind of design — functional and aesthetic. It’s design that’s in harmony with our individual lifestyles. Manufactured design, on the other hand, often misses the mark: Objects are configured and made according to particular specifications that are usually meaningless to the user. As a result, I’m often unhappy with almost everything I buy. I always want it to do something different, because my needs are changing. In fact, the more I use an object, the more my needs change around it.
Donald A. Norman (email@example.com), called the “guru of workable technology” and a “cantankerous visionary,” cofounded Nielsen Norman Group with Jakob Nielsen. The company helps other companies produce human-centered products and services. Norman is also Professor Emeritus in Cognitive Science at the University of California, San Diego and author of “The Design of Everyday Things” (Currency/Doubleday, 1990) and “The Invisible Computer” (MIT Press, 1998).
Principal, Chan Krieger & Associates
Chairman, Department of Urban Planning and Design
Harvard Graduate School of Design
When it comes to the quality of everyday life, the most important designs are our public spaces. Boston’s Post Office Square is a great example. It’s got a park that’s nearly two acres of greenery and open space in one of the densest parts of the city — the financial district. The juxtaposition of the mammoth buildings with this little oasis is marvelous — a piece of quiet civility in the middle of Boston.
My favorite public spaces are like stage sets, where the various aspects that create a scene are invisible. For instance, you’d never know that beneath Post Office Square is a seven-level garage that accommodates 1,400 vehicles — and that the park replaced a two-level garage that sat above ground for years.
Best of all, this space encourages human theater, with the lawn in the center functioning as a stage that’s encircled by walkways and benches. People who sit on the lawn are the players. Those who linger at the periphery are the audience. At lunchtime, the place is packed.
But the beauty of Post Office Square isn’t simply that it’s a destination, a place for people seeking a shady spot to eat lunch: It’s also a crossroads — a welcoming, accessible concourse where people’s paths converge. You could be going about your business, and suddenly you happen on this wonderful refuge. The opportunity to take a moment to rest and to sit quietly in nature, or to watch the human theater around you — those are the things that the best public spaces provide.
Alex Krieger (firstname.lastname@example.org) has designed the Discovery Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut and Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art. Most recently, he created a design for a new Fenway Park in Boston.