Great Design is Functional and Fascinating

May 7, 2015

Two things happened last week: Vancouver was named one of the unhappiest cities by Statistics Canada, and I went to the Happy Show in Vancouver. So which one wins?

Stefan Sagmeister’s design show is an experience for both body and mind that you must take in first hand. The Happy Show is the culmination of his last 10 years researching and exploring what mankind spends their lifetime searching for—happiness.

“The purpose of the show was to create something helpful or delightful for the audience. Once I was in the process I didn’t consider the audience at all,” said Sagmeister. While this duality provides an insightful look into the mind behind the Happy Show, it spoke more to me as an analogy for design in general.

So, where does design fit into the human experience? Who should it benefit: the audience, the designer or both?

Consider the following story:

Two people are travelling from one place to another. The first one is in a car commuting from their house to work. The second person is meandering along a trail in a nearby woods. The first is a necessary trip and one that will provide opportunity to acquire happiness by improving their life through wealth. The second has never walked this path before. They don’t know where it ends but they have no concern for anything but the natural beauty around them.

Which person enjoys their trip more? Is it the one engaging in function or the one embracing beauty.

Humans are eternally split between the need for functionality and the attraction to beauty. We know the value of travelling to work, but we also want to walk the forest path.

Great design—design that brings true happiness— bridges between those two core needs. If a job gets done but we don’t particularly enjoy it or pay attention to it, then it’s just a frame. If the experience is amazing but doesn’t do a whole lot, its just a painting. Both have their place, but together they tell a story that inspires and empowers.

It’s not an easy exercise to connect a design with these two needs especially if the thing being designed lends itself to only one of them. The next time you find yourself stuck in one, step back, rub your eyes, and search for the function or beauty hidden within it.

Design can bring the happiness found in experiencing art to the ordinary functionality of the everyday.

By Chris Montgomery

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