PHABRIK Magazine

Grand Designs

by Shawna Pandya

March 2015
PHABRIK Grand Designs

From couture to cars, skyscrapers to screens, design matters more than you might think

Design, design, design. Omnipresent, yet all too often overlooked in importance. It catches the eye, drawing in the casual observer. Beyond art and fashion, design impacts many industries including medicine, automotive and consumer electronics.

“Design,” said Steve Jobs, “is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” More than that, design is what attracts us to interact with something and to want it. Design demonstrates the most nuanced understanding of human motivation. Discerning what will capture a person’s attention and stir them to action is a big part of creating innovative design. If we define design as “creating with the intent to evoke specific reactions or behaviours,” it becomes a powerful problem-solving tool. When it comes to products, processes and visuals, design can be a superpower.

Design & Dollars

Given the broad definition of design, it is impossible to pin down its exact global GDP. Apple, known for its obsession with minimalist design, skyrocketed to a net worth of over $700 billion USD in 2014. If Apple were a country, its GDP would be 20th in the world. The web design industry in North America alone neared $35 billion USD last year. The global value of the fashion industry is expected to hit $3.7 trillion USD by the end of 2016. Suffice to say, design is valuable. Design affects behaviour—especially buying behaviour—so it only makes sense to invest in it heavily.

Creators of all kinds have picked up on this; they strive to outdo themselves in search of more finesse—and market share. Gone are the boxy sedans of the 90s, replaced with curvier, sleeker versions. Hold the first-generation iPhone next to an iPhone 6: the original is almost clumsy in comparison. Compare Apple to its competitors: you can’t argue with his Steve Jobs’s eye for design.

Designing Behaviour

In retail, physical spaces are constructed to guide buyers into entering, exploring and purchasing. Searching online for “retail layout strategy” yields a wealth of articles on storefront optimization. North American shoppers, for example, tend to turn right upon entering a store. Retailers capitalize on this trend by placing attention-grabbing displays there.
Now consider layouts in print and digital media. Visual layouts and headlines are designed to catch the eye, converting passersby to readers. The balance of text, colours, figures and patterns can mean success or failure for a newly-launched magazine or website.

This push for outstanding design has cultivated completely new industries in the past decade. User experience (UX) and user interface (UI) designers were unheard of before the proliferation of smartphones and apps. Now, these designers call the shots in technology. My friend, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, once asked me to aid in his search for a full-time UX designer for his startup. I was laughed at by my designer friends: He wanted a full-time designer? All to himself? Good luck! Designers were in such high demand, they could pick and choose their contracts. No one settled for working full-time for any sole project.

The Architecture of Good Design

If design is so important, we need to understand what makes for good design. More than aesthetics and symmetry, good design has to feel intuitive. It stirs the desire to engage. It can look deceptively simple, despite being complex and multi-dimensional. A well-designed product can take hours, months, years to develop. It can evolve from its original self.
Ultimately, good design elicits that “Ah yes. This is for me,” sentiment. What evokes this feeling today will not necessarily be the same tomorrow. The pinnacle of 1970s design is cringe-worthy today (orange shag carpet on brown tile, anyone?). Design evolves—this is as true in home decor and fashion as it is in technology and medicine.

Design also drives adoption, sauntering hand-in-hand with ergonomics and usability. I recently met with a group of enterprising biomedical engineers who were designing new tools to permit better access to the brain for certain neurosurgical procedures. I pored over their concept, asked detailed questions and played with the prototype. Their answers were exact, their methods sound. However, when I picked up the tool, I frowned. “The handle is too light,” I said. “The concept is great, but compared to what surgeons are used to, this is far lighter. They won’t like it. A heavier handle will also give you more leverage in surgery.” Medical devices are challenging. Doctors are notoriously picky and creatures of habit. If they can find a reason to resist change, they will.

Graphic design icon Ivan Chermayeff, the mind behind the National Geographic and Armani Exchange logos, captured the heart of it, noting, “Design is directed toward human beings. To design,” he said, “is to solve human problems by identifying them and executing the best solution.”

Profit and adoption aside, design matters because it is a physical manifestation of vision, leadership and creativity—the new currencies of our age. This becomes especially relevant at a time when automation is increasingly widespread. In other words, be unique or be replaced. Your value is in your individuality, and design is a realization of that individuality.

Designers—fashion, graphic, technical or otherwise—take note. You are valuable. You matter. You can make things happen.

Design is the future. Design is here to stay.

Okafor Pop Collage
Pop Collage


©2013 PHABRIK Magazine