thinking: good design is doing good.
It’s often said that our consumer culture is shallow, that it puts too much importance on appearances and material wealth. We fully agree; too much emphasis is put on how things look instead of how things ‘are’, and when you peel away the layers of appearance you often find nothing substantial supporting those layers. But we would add this: avoiding false layers of mere appearance is only the first step: relevant and beautiful expression is still needed. Building up new ‘authentic’ layers based on something substantial and real – what we’re willing to call ‘beauty’ – is absolutely necessary for more than just the individual (or, in our line of work, the organization), but for the community as a whole.
But smarter, more capable people than we have said the same, and in consideration of Thunder Bay’s protracted identity turmoil (yes, turmoil), we’d say that the consideration of community beauty is long overdue.
The City of Thunder Bay obviously agrees. Recently, the city has initiated the Inspire Thunder Bay Culture Plan, led by the capable and thoughtful Office for Urbanism out of Toronto. Part of the intent of this plan is to isolate Thunder Bay’s cultural identity so that a meaningful and sustainable culture strategy can be put in place. In turn, the intent of the strategy is to foster a community that puts an emphasis on genuine expressions of local culture in all senses, including fine arts, music, festivals and celebrations, public art, architecture, even civic infrastructure. In short, beauty.
This process is very similar to what another Northern Ontario city is undergoing. In November of 2009, Sudbury hosted an intense one-day workshop led by world-renowned designer (and Sudbury native) Bruce Mau. Mau’s assessment of Sudbury is sufficiently harsh but what most people already know: Sudbury is ugly. But more than that, Mau argues that Sudbury’s ugliness is driving away the very people it wants to attract and hold – the young, smart, creative, and motivated.
Mau’s solution is almost naïve in its simplicity: compete with beauty. Mau, being a designer, naturally has a bias toward beautiful things. After all, it’s his business and life’s work. But Mau’s definition of design extends well beyond dealing with the surface of things. Rather, it draws from and attends to the patterns that exist in the very core of us – our cultures, our communities, our spiritualities, our desires and dreams. As such, beauty takes on a much, much deeper significance, where beauty (via design) can solve virtually any problem. In the case of Sudbury, Mau suggests that they ought to employ beauty in all aspects of the community in order to provide those desirable types a place they like to be.
Now it’s one thing to speak to the artsies or to municipal policy wonks, since they naturally have a hand in shaping the ‘built environment’ of a community. It’s another matter entirely to put this burden on businesses and organizations, who do not necessarily consider themselves to be involved in the work of beauty, except perhaps on a purely utilitarian level: a business’ ‘brand’ and subsequent advertising needs to be attractive to its target demographic for the purpose of winning customers and, ultimately, increasing profit. Instead, ‘beauty’ or good design more often than not places a distant second to the unadorned function of advertising. The result is a common complaint: our visual landscape – from billboards, to internet, to television – is filled with annoying, invasive, and plain ugly ads.
Legendary graphic designer and partner at Pentagram, Paula Scher, argues that businesses have a vested interest in good design – in beauty – for two important reasons. First, a well designed ad is a more effective ad. It adds value to the underlying message, and adds value to the business, and provides value to the consumer. Good design is evidence to the consumer that the business respects them enough to put money and effort into making their products, advertisements, and various outward appearances meaningful and beautiful. Good design simply works better.
Usability expert Donald Norman provides us with some interesting evidence of the effect of good design on perception. He cites a study in which two ATM’s were placed side by side, user interactions were observed, and users were surveyed afterwards. Both ATMs functioned the same – the menu system, the button sequences – but one ATM was given extra attention to its aesthetics; its buttons looked and felt nicer, the display and menu was more attractive, etc. The user interaction observations and exit polls showed a uniform result: the ‘normal’ ATM reported more user errors, and the ‘nicer’ ATM was more enjoyable to use, even though they were functionally identical. This study was done in both Japan and Israel, with the same results. Good visual design – beyond function design – simply helps things work better.
The second reason Paula Scher says good design is in the interest of businesses is that it’s an easy way for businesses to contribute positively to the visual landscape of their community. In fact, some would argue – as Scher does – that this is a corporate responsibility, for businesses are as much a part of their wider community as any individual or government body. So not only does good, thoughtful design increase the value of a brand (and, let’s be honest about the goal here, its profitability), it presents a positive, hopeful message to the community and makes that community a better place to be.
Too often, however, all levels of a community tend to forgo the obvious: experts. Too often (and especially in times of financial strain), the decision to use a quicker, cheaper ‘solution’ is made, and the result screams to anyone available (in Paula Scher’s words):
WE’RE SCARED and