Design is about more than whether something “works.” Lots of things “work.” A theater marquee with chipped paint and missing letters “works.” If the local strip mall has what I need, you could say its ugly plastic sign “works.” Each identifies my destination well enough to get there.

What they don’t provide is delight, inspiration, fulfillment. I go there but I don’t love it. I enjoy roaming the galleria as much for its visual and aural ambience as for the products on sale, and it draws me back. I love beauty and seek it out. Great design creates atmosphere, mood, desire, experience — it lifts my spirit, stirs my soul, makes the world a more pleasant place to be.

So yeah, we can follow the sign, sit, eat, move along.

Or we can live.

Design can make the difference.

This entry was posted in Design, Editorial. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to Aspiration

  1. Melissa says:

    So true, John. It’s why Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, etc. are go-to destinations for those seeking a unique shopping experience as opposed to a general purchase experience. I will pay 30-40% more for an item from a place in which I am surrounded by beauty, art, and genius simply because the atmosphere heightens my senses, calls me to enter into that environment and provides pleasure on a whole new level.

    • Guenter says:

      Bravo. Now show me who else is spending $40 more for every hundred they spend just to be surounded by beauty.

      I have been involved in the illuminated advertising business all my life, and while I appreciate good type, neat little layouts, and beauty of good design and all it entails, business comes first to a business person. There are but a select few who are willing to spend more than they have to, just to make you feel comfortable. But please do not lose your sense of beauty; a mall is not designed for it but for business.

      • John McWade says:

        We could have a very long discussion about this, but if you’re putting ink on paper or words on a screen, it costs no more to make them beautiful than it does to make them ugly. What it does require is someone who cares enough to do it.

        • Bingo. Quality is free because you don’t spend twice as much time doing it over. “Quality Is Free: The Art of Making Quality Certain” by Philip Crosby, 1980-ish; still applies, will always apply.

        • Guenter says:

          John your comments are very true, but it also takes a buyer that is sensitive to good design and in this business (illuminated advertising) any additional colour or lines cost money to execute and a buyer to pay for it. I can recall hundreds of excellent and appropiate designs produced in our art department that got shot down in flames because of the addional cost to execute same. All this aside, I really appreciate the fine work you are doing and I am a big fan of yours, and I hope you will continue to set standards.

  2. Sherry Pearl says:

    This is so true. I am drawn to places that are beautifully designed, and being a business I know how important that is, something other frame shops are missing. John redesigned our logo and we have a new sign which replicates it. I will send you some pictures.

  3. Léo Gagné says:

    The nature does it daily! We all like to go back where the landscape was beautiful to our eyes, where it was smelling good, where we feel well. Yes, you can do your daily jogging in an industrial area, but you almost have to beat yourself to keep doing it! But if you can jog in a trail near a river, where trees are magnificient, you will want to go back there, everyday! Nature is a fantastic designer, sometimes! (Personally, I always prefer doing my bike rides were the road brings me to splendid landscapes! Riding in city streets is somewhat much less interesting…)

  4. Wonderful quote! I can see this on a piece of artwork, poster, collage etc. hanging on a wall.

    “Great design creates atmosphere, mood, desire, experience — it lifts my spirit, stirs my soul, makes the world a more pleasant place to be.”

  5. Ron DelBene says:

    John, I read your words today at the near end of a creative retreat at the sea and was reminded how since the first issue of Before & After your word/style has been an invitation to explore the sights and sounds of where I am — externally and internally. Always delighted to be reminded that my eyes are more sensitive to light/design/creativity because of your vision and now the vision of so many others on The Grid of mutual envisioning. Thanks.

  6. Anne Hiney says:

    You’re singing my song!! Art elevates life. That includes good design.

  7. Julia says:

    Well said; beautifully created to create beautifully. One of the best parts of a designer’s skill set may be the ability to reclaim/redeem/re-create what, for now, just “works.” Thanks for the reminder John.

  8. Margie says:

    I so agree with your words, John! Thank you!
    I teach jewelry design and stress this same concept. In jewelry design I see artists designing things that simply “hang together”and look OK. Design is also more than making something that hangs together.

    I recently write in my blog:

    “Personally, I look to how something makes me feel before I assign the word “beautiful” to a work of art…

    Do I feel inspired?
    Do I feel enchanted, as if some form of magic is taking place?
    Do I sense a timelessness?
    Do I feel awe?
    Do I feel peaceful, like all is right for just this moment –- or possibly forever -– because this exists?
    Do I sense something larger and grander going on, something beyond what I can see, taste, hear, and touch?
    Do I feel glad to be alive, honored to be in a world where this exists, honored to be part of the human family where a fellow being can create such beauty?”
    I’m elated to see you using the words soul and spirit and beauty for graphic design. It needs to be said.

    Thank you.
    Thank you.

  9. Lizabeth Walsh says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. As a yearbook teacher, I work with high school students to get them to design spreads in the book that are aesthetically pleasing as well as functional and inclusive. Because we try to cover all 1,670 students in 320 pages, with many of those pages dedicated to specific topics, we have to get creative without being pedestrian. It’s not easy, and I believe that challenging them at this stage of life helps them to meet other challenges later. Most of my students who master the art of doing more than “what works” tend to gain acceptance from the colleges they want, achieve the degrees they pursue, and land the jobs they want to begin successful careers. Is it because they mastered design? Maybe. Is it because they learned to move beyond what works and push themselves to do more and better? Probably. Design is just the vehicle for teaching them how to live.

  10. John Chase says:

    John, it’s great to see you still publishing. You’ve had a huge impact on my previous employer, who regards your design/technical articles with enthusiasm. I, of course, have a degree and am beyond help. -john

  11. Well said. My fiancé and I spent the weekend in Abiquiú, New Mexico, for a conference at Ghost Ranch. They had inadequate signage and virtually no way finding, except to permanent installations such as the “welcome” center, the dining hall, etc. The buildings are diminished by years of neglect, and yet they were entirely filled. It’s considered almost a sacred site for such events, but in my mind, the public is being bamboozled.

    Design can also be made manifest through the people who work in a place. Not just how they look and dress but how they behave toward guests. Do they create an atmosphere of welcome and information or do they not even bother to create a relationship? Design, typography, way finding, customer care: all have the idea of relationship at their core.

  12. John Lockton says:

    Beautifully put. We forget — at least I forget — sometimes how much design affects how we see the world everyday.

  13. Lynne says:

    There are two candidates in my area who have graphically gorgeous campaign posters. The design is clean and elegant, the colors limited and sophisticated, all text is legible and readable. I have been seriously influenced by the beauty of the ads. I hope others have been, too. Turns out both have distinguished qualifications and are lovely people, too.

  14. Greeting from Thailand.
    Your words are inspiring, and your contents are very useful and enjoyable.

    Thank you very much for your contribution to the design.

    All the best,

  15. Beautifully said and a gracious reminder :) Thank you

  16. Bob Long says:

    Hi John
    Great answer.
    Now for a question. Can I “steal” your comment about design?:

    “I love beauty and seek it out. Great design creates atmosphere, mood, desire, experience — it lifts my spirit, stirs my soul, makes the world a more pleasant place to be.”

    I am putting a brochure together for a truly magnificent chess set I sell like no other! Your words were more poetic than mine and I would credit you and your web site?

    Thanks, Bob Long

  17. I’m going to disagree, on two counts.

    First: “A theater marquee with chipped paint and missing letters ‘works.’ ”

    Works in the sense that it communicates what’s playing, but communication is emotional, too. If that sign says, “shabby, run-down, and we don’t care,” then hard to say it works.

    Second: The word “works” is very valuable to me, as it helps me get direction from clients, especially executives and technical types. I have trained some of them to stop using the words “like” and “dislike” and talk about what in the design works and doesn’t work. It’s the best word I have found to focus clients on feedback that I can act on.

  18. Donna Felt says:

    I really enjoy your newsletters…but at 83 I figure I’m really out of the game so do not subscribe. I have done a postcard for the 25 years for an arty organization and finally figured I was out of date in my ideas. The new artist just produced the new one and the group is really disappointed. Thank you for keeping me aware of all the ideas that can make things more exciting….that is a nice gift. It really made me feel good.

  19. Geoffrey Ryan says:

    As a designer from the cut and stick days, inspiration from deep within stirs when I see good design, but what I see in today’s world — and the MBA side of me keeps reminding me — is that sucesss in the marketplace is measured only by sales, unfortunately.

    • John McWade says:

      There is a big misconception out there that sales are real and design is frivolous. But Apple is the world’s most valuable company and the most design-centric. Porsche is the world’s most profitable car company and the most design-centric. This is not coincidence.

      Many “pretty” products fail, but it’s not because they don’t look good. Soul-sapping “design” exists only because someone didn’t care enough to make it beautiful.

  20. I want to take all the ugly strip malls and paint them mod colors. Just go nuts with paint and make them funkadelic! If the design is lacking, there are other ways to make it come alive …

    Good article!

  21. Amazing read, John. I agree with everything you’ve said. It really makes a difference when something is made with love, with professional touch, simply by someone who cares. But this is obvious not directly but by seeing which brands work and which are simply “there”. People may not understand necessarily why they like something, but they can feel the good design.

    Great article!

  22. Elizabeth says:

    Photos of New York City’s original Penn Station (which was torn down and replaced by the hideous Madison Square Garden) show a grand, elegant design on a par with Grand Central Terminal. Good design replaced by bad design (our current Penn Station) must be, at the very least, a lesson learned. Bad design makes me avoid Penn Station whenever I can. Good design makes me go out of my way to walk through Grand Central Terminal, even when I’m not taking a train. Good design makes us feel better.

  23. Rajabu Kanju says:

    Your comment help me a lot in my day to day work. thank you john

  24. I just returned from a vacation that included a stop in Copenhagen. I spent most of one day at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, an art museum (and primarily a sculpture museum) that was build around the personal collection of Carl Jacobsen, the son of the founder of Carlsberg Breweries.

    During the guided tour, the docent explained that Jacobsen was a true art lover who placed many pieces of art around the city. He felt viewing art made people better persons. Art is uplifting and ennobling. His goal was to create a better society through public art. What a concept!

  25. Scott Hayes says:

    Couldn’t agree more, John. No one seems to understand this as well as Starbucks. I have never been in one of their stores and not felt the positive energy they put into everything from products on display, architectural detail, music, decor and all other things Starbucks. I love being in their stores as much for the vibe as the coffee. I return often as a result.

  26. Mark Haab says:

    I would apply connotation and denotation to the design description. The movie marquee with its flashing lights may say what the theater is showing (denotation) and draw the attention of a passerby, but the condition of the sign would express the theater’s history and communicate an emotion to the passerby (connotation). A good design needs both.

Comments are closed.