The inherent creativity of the human beings is one of the key reasons that we are the dominant species on planet earth and only a modicum of investigation is needed to witness how it simply bursts out of every society with inspiring results, regardless of creed, colour or inherent wealth. Human ingenuity and inventiveness has existed since time immemorial and spearheaded the relatively rapid progress of our species in many diverse and compelling ways.
Our appreciation for creativity is also inherent and no formal training or education is needed to become moved by a certain painting, sculpture or piece of music. These traditionally appreciated forms of creativity are easy to hold aloft as examples of the intellectual heights that we can reach as a species. However, it is important that we offer the same reverence to our engineering achievements and the sensational scientific innovations that have helped shape our evolution with such dramatic effects. The way in which our species has sometimes used these innovations for the exploitation of the masses rather than for making the world a better place for current and future generations is clearly a subject worthy of its own article and will not be expanded upon here.
The seemingly self-perpetuating human creativity continues at a pace in this modern world and our collective ingenuity fuels technological and artistic advances at an astonishing rate. Concepts that would have been considered the stuff of science fiction only a few years ago are now common place and this is indeed an exciting time to be alive.
For the purposes of this article we are going to use the term ‘design’ to define these instances of human creativity. While I acknowledge that asking 1000 people to define what ‘design’ means to them is likely to result in 1000 different answers, I personally like to consider design as the physical manifestation of a piece of human creativity. This means that creativity ranging from art to engineering and possibly even into the field of science can be included and prevents the suffocating effects of self-imposed boundaries that we encounter all too often in the modern design world. I don’t recall Leonardo Da Vinci limiting his field of vision to just painting, or Enzo Ferrari appreciating the Jaguar E Type purely for its mechanical capabilities and in my opinion, neither should we.
Being a designer is at its best a vocation and every designer with this mind-set will set out with the desire to create a truly great design. The result at the end of the day however, can be compromised due to anything from financial constraints, to insufficient research, or even to a lack of vision and very few designs achieve such a lofty position.
So what ingredients are needed to create a great design?
Firstly, the most important ingredient for any great design is innovation and the generation of a solution to a problem or desire that is unique and offers clear advantages over what has gone before. Where would our modern world be for example without Orville and Wilbur Wright, the American inventors and aviation pioneers who developed their flying machine into the world’s first practical fixed-wing aircraft? Isambard Kingdom Brunel is another design hero who demonstrated his belief that propeller-driven ships were the way of the future back in the 19th century by initiating a tug of war between two equally matched ships, one paddle driven and the other propeller. As the propeller driven ship pulled the paddle driven vessel along without mercy, it was clear that Brunel was indeed correct and the propeller era had begun in earnest.
The functionality of a great design must also be paramount, because clearly this is a primary purpose of any design. There is no point in creating a train that can deliver you to your destination in half the normal time if you have been thrown around so much that you spent most of your journey with your head in a sick bag. A great design must enhance our lives making them easier, more fun or even more spiritually rewarding. Look at the way that the Dyson vacuum cleaners overwhelmed the established manufacturers in such a short time – their designs were dramatically more effective at cleaning the floors and customers flocked to them like bees to honey.
Great designs must also exhibit reliability and the build quality that you would expect from such an object. Penny-pinching must not be allowed to destroy the quality and reliability of a design, so that it becomes unable to perform its primary function almost as soon as it is taken out of the box. Obviously, this is subjective to each design and must be judged accordingly. For example, one catastrophic failure of something such as a Rolls Royce turbine aero engine would be one too many.
As a species, we have an innate appreciation for things of beauty and any truly great design must in my opinion, also be able to make our eyes dilate as we appreciate the intrinsic good looks. The pleasing aesthetics must not be at the expense of functionality or practicality and many great designs are stunning examples of aesthetic form following function. It has often been commented for example, that the most successful Formula 1 racing cars are also frequently the most attractive. Look at Norman Foster’s stunning bridge the Viaduc de Millau and it is evident that the world’s highest bridge is also one of the most beautiful.
There is of course no point in creating a sensational design if it unaffordable and while customers are willing to pay a premium for the best, the designer must make their designs accessible to the intended market. History is littered with excellent designs that were just too expensive for their chosen market. The small family (all aluminium) Audi A2 car for example was a wonderfully progressive design that ticked many of the boxes to be a great design but fell at the last fence due to price, costing as much as a fully loaded Golf GTI. Its design influence will be felt in an impressive new generation of eco friendly Audis but the original A2 itself did not sell in anything like the numbers that had been hoped because of the high price tag.
In a modern world that appears to be increasingly concerned with the consumption and brazen display of brands, it is important to understand that these imperious brands have been forged from the creation of great designs and not the other way round. A strong brand offers the favourable ability to deliver a design to the correct market niche, usually at an acceptable price and with varying degrees of good-will from the customer. A great design will take on board the historical context and company values and ethos, but must also be able to stand on its own without the need to excuse or compromise due to the associated brand.
Great designs are born when a fresh spark of human ingenuity and inventiveness encapsulates a new and significantly superior solution to the needs of the time. Taking on board the awareness of this systemic human creativity I believe that it is fair to say that ‘Anyone can be a great designer.’ This doesn’t mean that ‘Everyone can be a great designer’, but instead means that a great designer can come from anywhere, from any social structure and at any time. The only limiting factor for the arrival of potential great designers of the future is the availability of education and enabling their inherent talent to meet opportunities for it to flourish.
Here are just a few examples that I consider to be great designs, in no particular order:
Jaguar E-Type – by Malcolm Sayer
Innovations abound on this British design masterclass, with performance that at the time must have seemed like rocket speed but cost little more than a pint of milk. Possibly the most beautiful road car that has ever been produced.
London Tube Map 1933 – by Harry Beck
This iconic graphic brings clarity and calm to the otherwise chaotic city of London and remains essentially unchanged 70 years on. The tube-travelling visitors and locals took to it straightaway and its influence can be seen on most other city railways around the world.
Chrysler Building – by William Van Alen
The Chrysler Building is a New York design treasure that proudly parades its Art Deco heritage and must be considered one of America’s finest buildings. Originally created as a status symbol for car manufacturer Walter P. Chrysler, this beautiful structure was also the tallest building in the world for a short time. The Art Deco interior is even more lavish and magnificent than its exterior and a visit to this wonderful building will make any day feel better.
The Supermarine Spitfire – by R.J. Mitchell & Joseph Smith
Few designs can convey such historical significance and the Spitfire’s status as a Great British Icon will never diminish. R.J. Mitchell’s success in designing for the Schneider Trophy air races was transferred into creating this innovative fighter aircraft which earned its reputation in the Battle of Britain.
Toy Story – by Pixar
Pixar Animation ushered in a new era of cinema with this classic computer animated movie. The key to any good film is of course, the writing and in this film is no exception. The entire world of this movie has been created in the computer and the Pixar team played to the strengths of the medium for this film, focussing on the more geometric forms of the toys and it works to perfection. Any movie that can still raise a smile from a tired parent after more than a dozen viewings deserves to be considered a great design.
Louis Poulsen PH5 light – by Poul Henningsen
Poul Henningsen conducted pioneering work concerning the relations between light structures, shadows, glare, and colour reproduction in the early part of the 20th century. These lighting theories still form the bedrock of the work practiced by Louis Poulsen Lighting today. The PH5 light design is an inspirational design that scientifically provides a well lit, yet glare-free lighting experience. The light also gently bathes the room in warm and flattering lighting tones that are least sensitive to the eye. This beautiful lighting design icon is still in production today and long may it continue.
Alessi Bird kettle – by Michael Graves
The Alessi Bird Kettle didn’t become the number one seller in Alessi’s history without good reason.
Michael Graves was asked to design a stove kettle that would appeal to the American market and what he created went onto become a cultural icon of the 1980’s. This striking design is instantly recognisable and was instilled with a light hearted sense of occasion and design panache and that was a world away from any of its utilitarian contemporaries.
Ant chair – by Arne Jacobsen
The influence of this elegant design has been substantial and for good reason, it is a timeless classic. This chair is extremely comfortable, supportive and pleasingly sculptural. The innovative formed plywood shell and strong but slender steel legs resulted in a chair that is light, stable, durable, easy to lift and stack and a pleasure to own.
Possibly the most impressive consumer product of the last decade and one that would have seemed unfeasible only a short time ago. As Apple has evolved their i-pod concept into a multimedia device that can adapt to the unique needs of each user they have created a design that left the competition reeling in their wake. Gorgeous looks, exceptional build quality and functionality that is still leaps and bounds ahead of the competition assure this concept to be a great modern design.