Good Design is Good for Us

DesignGasPumpI have a problem. I daydream during class. And I’m the teacher.

A couple of my students tonight, in a web design class, were giving short presentations on user experience design. It was fascinating material, stuff I love reading about: why attractive things work better, how we are seduced and persuaded by the “personality” of aesthetics, how gestalt psychology helps us make visual sense of the world.

But I was distracted by an image of a gas pump. In the textbook we are reading, Seductive Interaction Design, the chapter addresses the credibility of strong design (a gas pump that was new and looked well-kept would encourage us more to put our credit card in it than in a beat up and ugly one).

Sure, good design is more credible than bad design. Anybody who has ever laid eyes on a website like this knows how much bad design can damage credibility. But good design fosters far more than credibility. Good design is what makes us human.

I reflected on the gas pumps I visit most often: at 7-Eleven and the local Chevron. They aren’t designed very well. Oh, sure, they work; I get my gas, the pumps are easy to use. Shoot, the Chevron even plays the news on a mini television screen while I do my pumping. But the machines are boxy and, well, functional. They’re color-coded and all that jazz, but that doesn’t make them interesting to look at. It only makes them usable. It makes them efficient and understandable, but that’s about it. I couldn’t help but let my mind take me to what they might look like.

The visual world in America often feels much like those gas pumps: effective, functional, efficient. But not very exciting. We live in a boxy, predictable, cookie-cutter world.

The question is, why?

Historically, I suppose, we can trace the mentality of efficiency over design back to the early empiricists, like Francis Bacon, who established protocols for the scientific method in the 1600s. Or, more recently, we can blame the Industrial Revolution or Fordism, where standardization became a method for productivity, for quantity, for monetization.

But historical culprits or not, those events shouldn’t effect us on a personal level. Yet, they do. Despite vision being our overwhelmingly dominant sense, so many of us are unwilling to put forth the effort to design better things. We’re content with making things efficient, despite being emotionally and physiologically impacted by what we see.

Did you know that 50% of our brain power is controlled by our ability to see? That’s right! Half of all the energy that our brain exerts is spent on comprehending vision. Our brain is feverishly working to interpret colors, lines, geons, and, yes, even human faces every time we open our eyes. And that mental exertion actually trumps our other senses.

Did you know that wine aficionados (and I mean true experts here) have been known to not be able to tell the difference in taste between white and red wine when a tasteless, odorless red dye was placed in white wines at a tasting event? Why? Because the stuffy wine pundits were being fooled by their eyes. And did you know that people in hospitals tend to be healthier if they have windows in their rooms? Why? Because seeing makes people feel happy and healthier.

What we look at actually has emotional and physical reactions on our bodies. When we are faced with good design, we tend to feel happier, healthier, more energetic, amused, tranquil, and all-around better off.

So why are we so content to live with bad design?

Are you aware that most grown adults can’t draw better than a 10-year-old? That’s actually rather appalling. Imagine if most grown adults couldn’t read, think, or act beyond the maturity of 10-year-olds. We’d be a pretty simple society indeed. But, in reality, much of what we design is, well, simplistic. It’s usable, but it isn’t pretty.

Our cars have looked more or less the same for decades now. Most of our computers (Apples still kind of have an edge here) look like big black boxes. Most affordable homes look like they fell out of a Jell-O mould. And don’t get me started on the dull-to-the-extreme classrooms I teach in everyday (or the dry erase boards I write on).

And on a day-to-day basis? Well, you should see what many of my students turn in! Hardly anything has been designed (unless I make them, of course). Little care is ever taken to adjust the typography, headings, colors, margins, and images. No, just the defaults are used: Times, Calibri, and 11-pt. font. 1″ margins. Oh, I guess it’s efficient. But it sure gets dull to look at. And I can’t even imagine what all the HR professionals think when they look at the same resume over and over and over and over again.

It really isn’t anyone in particular’s fault. Design isn’t taught in most schools beyond fourth grade (hence the 10-year-old syndrome), unless a student wants to be an artist or a graphic designer or an architect or a musician. For the most part, we focus on efficiency. We test in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and we reward most educational dollars to programs that support those initiatives.

But can’t we all do a little more each day to design our world better? Can’t we turn in better documents, demand more aesthetic machines, encourage more interesting homes and cars and gas pumps? Shoot, can’t we even make the food we make more aesthetically pleasing? Or the way we design our own walls?

Or am I just daydreaming? Are we doomed to continue in a world of boxes and Times New Roman? Or can we give the eyes what they were emotionally built to understand: colors, complexity, sophisticated simplicity, warmth, energy, emotion, and tranquility?