Good and Bad Design

This article is about morality, guns, nuclear bombs, sharks and post-modernism down the pub.


What can survive the present? How can one thing, one object, one design, manage to infiltrate our minds like dirt in an oyster and grow over time to become something timeless, a ‘classic’, an object left alone by the winds of style, not eroded by the rains of progress, not left to rust in a corner by the whims of modernity? That is, what is Good design? And what gives it longevity?

The word Good is the key and it has two meanings here  – good as in well crafted,  built with skill, fit for purpose, fit for function. And good as in doing good, changing lives for the better, adding goodness to the world. But hey I here you hey, what is goodness and who is the judge of that? The Browning M1911 revolver (designed by John Moses Browning) is beautiful and functional – but what is its goodness quota? It is used to kill people right?  Also, the Spitfire (designed by R.J. Mitchell), a plane of such sleek powerful beauty that most children never forget the experience of flying it around their living rooms. Or a samurai sword, a shining example of the perfect unity of function and beauty, power and elegance. How do we measure the Goodness of these objects? Their beauty is obvious to most of us, and they are absolutely fit for function. But should they be celebrated? Can celebrating these objects be compared to celebrating the beauty of the mushroom cloud caused by the Hiroshima nuclear bomb?  However hard we fight it, is there not something beautiful about that ubiquitous nuclear cloud we see on tv screens over and over again? The nuclear bomb – so beautiful and so functional at the same time. This line of thinking can feel quite wrong in so many ways, but, just like the Big Bang beginning of our universe, the end of our sun in 5 billion years time will be beautiful too even though it will mark the end of human existence. Creation and Destruction – all part of the creative act as every parent of a 2 year old boy will know.

Now, war history aside, can the measure of goodness be a measure of beauty? From the Samurai Sword, to the Browning, to the Spitfire, to the cloud created by  a nuclear bomb, they are all beautiful when divorced from their function.  But also,  can  their fitness for function be divorced from the human repercussions of their function?
Another way of putting this is – is it possible to design a beautiful gun? If so, is its beauty only a by-product of great function and therefore the beautiful gun is only beautiful because it performs its purpose efficiently without unnecessary adornment?
This all throws up the BIG question  – is morality an integral part of Good Design? 

Post-modernism, if she could talk and you met her for a pint down the pub might say (while eating all your nuts) ‘No. Each object sits in its own universe created by its very existence. It must be judged in that universe alone. Morality, just like the gun, is a human construct. Morality has no place in design. The nuclear mushroom is as beautiful as a little boy’s smiling face. And if that little boy grows up to be a mass murderer, that does not change the beauty of his face one bit.’ Whilst you may choke on your nuts, she could be right. And the NRA might say ‘Nuclear bombs don’t kill humans, humans kill humans.’ or even ‘Good Design doesn’t kill humans, humans kill humans.’ How very post-modern of them!

An example of how morality can change our view of design is the shark. A shark is one of nature’s best designs, fiercely functional and beautiful. That is until that particular shark happens upon a friend and snaps up half of him for lunch. The shark’s beauty and function have not changed, but the shark’s ‘morality’ has, and what was once beautiful is now evil and can be happily massacred for its fins without anyone caring (unlike the dolphins who have a much better PR agency).
What is very clear here is that design can be separated from morality. A simple test is that of the ugly gun. Is it possible to design a gun that is ugly and not fit for function? It seems it is. And once the difference is apparent, either intellectually or intuitively, morality is proven to be something that is ‘bolted on’ afterwards. But what makes the gun below ugly? Is not beauty in the eye of the beholder (that old chestnut)? If that were true it would mean the beauty of Bach’s music is down to fancy, whim, the style of the day. The proof of the beauty of Bach’s music  is its longevity. It has withstood the pressure of the present. Modernity has been unable to shift it. 

And why is the gun below ugly? Not because of its lack of balance, harmony, curves or symmetry (the lack of which would be argued by some to be a measure of beauty), but simply because the present has made it obsolete. It has been judged superfluous. Good design is never superfluous.

Bad Design and the why of bad design will be the subject of the next post.

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