"In 1847 an Englishman named Sir Henry Cole startled the Council of the Society of Arts by saying, “Of high art in this country there is abundance; of mechanical industry and invention an unparalleled profusion. The thing still remaining to be done is to effect the combination of the two; to wed high art with mechanical skill”. In short: make things that look great and function well.
The history of design reveals the constant struggle to achieve this harmony of form and function. In the 1930's manufactured goods served their intended purpose (function), but they came off the production lines with a stagnant sameness (form)1. The successful companies of the time realized that it wasn't enough to simply make a new product; the key was in making products that worked better, looked better, and were more in tune with consumer demands.
The following decades blossomed into the golden age of Industrial Design. Companies came to realize that design was a silent salesman2. Design not only enhanced experience but built confidence and customer assurance. It wasn't just about making products that were used; it was about making products that were used and enjoyed. Henry Dreyfuss noted,
“If the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the industrial designer has failed. If, on the other hand, people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient—or just plain happier—the designer has succeeded.”3
As designers for the digital space we need to remember to design for the other side of the screen. Every design decision we make should be because of our users, and for our users. Our job is very much like the industrial designer—to solve functional problems and craft positive experiences for people. These are people with real lives, real families, real needs, and real problems. Dieter Rams said,
“You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people; design is made for people.”4
The question, then, is how do we design for people? Here is a simple point of application: in order to design effectively for your users, you must first know your users. The best industrial designers always claimed to know their target audience better than that audience knew themselves. The same should be true of us in the digital space. We should be asking ourselves things like: what does a person want to do on this page? Does this provide a solution to a problem they have? How will this design make them feel more comfortable, happier, or more eager to purchase?
We are designers not decorators. And though a large part of what we do is aesthetic, it is not all we do. We are designers, and that means we are responsible for creatively crafting solutions that matter to the men, women, boys, and girls that use our products. Dieter Rams has stated that the days of thoughtless design are over, and he's right. We are in an age where design matters because the common denominator is people. And design is made for people.
Design for the people on the other side of the screen. Solve their problems. Make things that they will love. It doesn't have to be complicated; it just has to be for people.