Technical knowledge isn’t enough. You need good taste to design beautiful things.
People across a range of fields use the word beautiful to describe work that is good. Surely there’s some overlap in what they mean. How can we figure out what this overlap is so we could better understand how to design beautiful things?
People like to think that taste is subjective, and that there’s no “right answer”. It probably feels this way to them because when they like something, they have no idea why. Their thoughts are just a tangle of unexamined impulses.
Saying that taste is just personal preference is a good way to prevent disputes. The trouble is, it's not true. You feel this when you start to design things.
Once you start to examine the question, it's surprising how much different fields' ideas of beauty have in common. The same principles of good design crop up again and again.
- Good design is simple. Simplicity forces you to deliver substance, and to face the real problem. When people try to get fancy, they usually make things overly complicated and avoid the real problem.
- Good design is timeless. If you can imagine someone surpassing you, you should do it yourself.
- Good design solves the right problem. It optimizes the right things; the things we truly care about.
- Good design is suggestive. It lets you interpret rather than telling you explicitly. For example, everyone makes up their own story about the Mona Lisa.
- Good design is often slightly funny. Probably because it shows that the artist is confident.
- Good design is hard. In the sense of going for a run, not stepping on a nail.
- Good design looks easy. It makes you say, “I could have done that”.
- Good design uses symmetry. There are two types of symmetry: repetition and recursion. Symmetry is just one way to achieve simplicity, but it’s important enough to mention on it’s own.
- Good design resembles nature. Good design resembles nature. It's not so much that resembling nature is intrinsically good as that nature has had a long time to work on the problem. It's a good sign when your answer resembles nature's.
- Good design is redesign. You never get something right on your first try, and good design happens when you keep iterating.
- Good design can copy. Attitudes to copying often make a round trip. A novice imitates without knowing it; next he tries consciously to be original; finally, he decides it's more important to be right than original.
- Good design is often strange.
- Good design happens in chunks. Nothing is more powerful than a community of talented people working on related problems.
- Good design is often daring. Throughout history, there’s always been mismatches between conventional wisdom and truth. It’d be remarkable if our time were any different.