Design And The Lack Of Intent

I read a great post today by John Moran about Intent within Apple’s designs.

Overarching intent is easy. The hard part is driving that conscious decision-making throughout every little choice in the creative process. Good designers have a clear sense of the overall purpose of their creation; great designers can say, “This is why we made that decision” about a thousand details.

When Jony Ive, Apple’s newly titled SVP of Design, criticizes a material selection or feature decision, “he’s known to use ‘arbitrary’ as a term of abuse.”

John goes to outline the “Three Design Evasions”; what most companies do instead of employing Intent.

  1. Preserving the past.
  2. Copy first without making the Intent your own.
  3. Delegating design decisions to your customers.

The question is, what is holding good design back? Do we lack good designers or are corporations ruining them?

I don’t know the answer. I’m quite sure that a lot of designers are aware of Intent and consciously try hard. The problem is, I tend to find most of the celebrated designers lacking it the most. Instead, I often find good Intent and good design in kitchen utensils and other everyday tools that are not “appearance” driven.

For example, architecture. Widely acclaimed architecture is more often praised based on its appearance. Of course critics will note Intent and usability benefits. However, as an actual user of these buildings, I have never found myself appreciating the designers’ decisions. In fact, we more often tend to loath the strangely designed rooftops that invariable leak rain, and the unconventional hallway orientations that make you feel lost.

On the other hand, I marvel at the curves of my kitchen cutting knife or scissors which are truly designed to fit your hand. I wonder at the small details on the metal knife embedded in the box of my food wrap which allow me to efficiently cut the film with the minimum of strength and without it tearing in unwanted places.

Even Jony Ive’s designs used to have annoying flaws. I hated the trackpad buttons on the Powerbook G3s which looked nice, but had a very badly designed clicking mechanism. The flimsy hinge on the Titanium Powerbook easily fractured and came off. And it’s really hard to justify the design of the “toilet-seat” iBooks. There was very little Intent in those designs.

In my opinion, it was only after the aluminum Powerbooks which had very minimal ornamentation that Jony’s designs started to blend form and function.

Designing with Intent is probably really really hard. Even for Apple and Jony Ive.