Is “Good Design” In The Eye Of The Beholder?

I’ve seen quite a few articles and blog posts recently discussing “good design” and “bad design”. It got me thinking about the concept, along with the various categorizations and judgments we who operate under the title “designer” place so easily on the work of others as well as our own. Is not the determination of whether or not an object of design is deserving of the rating “good” a subjective one, formed by preferences and/or opinions? Or is there, in fact, a set of standards or guidelines written in stone somewhere that all design can and should adhere to?

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

This familiar quote dates back to the 3rd century BC in Greek. Yes, it’s ancient. Does that make it true? Not necessarily, but I believe it is. It has been paraphrased throughout the centuries by numerous wise souls and it stands the test of time enough to still be recognizable today. Benjamin Franklin said it this way:

Beauty, like supreme dominion
Is but supported by opinion

And David Hume’s Essays, Moral and Political, include:

Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.

Pointing out the subjectivity of defining beauty does not necessarily make my point. After all, is good design considered beautiful? Possibly.

Wikipedia states that “Design is often viewed as a more rigorous form of art, or art with a clearly defined purpose.” Following this path a little further brings up the debate about whether or not design is art. As a graphic artist and musical artist turned graphic and web designer, I would stand firmly with those that believe good design is, in fact, art.

What, then, is art?

Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions. (Wikipedia again)

Obviously, what appeals to one person’s senses or emotions may not have the same effect on another’s. In fact, it is highly unlikely that any two people will respond to the same piece of art in the exact same way. The uniqueness of each member of the human race is a marvel and a beauty within itself – at least to me. Maybe not to you.

So, let’s recap. If design is to be considered a form of art, and art is only qualified as such dependent upon the emotional or sensual makeup of the person who is taking it in, then does it not stand to reason that no single person or group or committee or conference could possibly come up with the standard of “good design” that we all must live by?

But here’s another thought.

Design implies a conscious effort to create something that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing. *

So although it may look good – subjective as that may be – it would still not be considered “good design” if it was dysfunctional, correct?

For example, a beautiful-looking website that has confusing navigation would never be considered “good design”. And a well-organized, user-friendly website that is painful to look at would not make the grade either. Art on its own does not require functionality, but good design does.

So does this mean that design, unlike art, can be confined to a set of standards due to the necessity of functionality?

Unfortunately, I would submit that even funcionality can be subjective. One person may immediately identify with the usability built into one website, while another may have considerable trouble. Again, individuality comes into play.

So maybe “good design” is that which is aesthetically pleasing and functional to the majority. In this case, it seems standards would tend to be based on the most feasible common denominator, which once again I would argue does not always breed the best results. Exhibit A: pop music.

So where does this leave us? How does one create “good design”?

I choose to design that which I believe is aesthetically pleasing, functional, and a creative expression of my soul. If I succeed in accomplishing this, I define it as “good design”. So far, my clients and people whose opinion I respect define it as such also. In the end, I guess that’s all that really matters to me.

But that’s just my opinion.

What’s yours?

  • Hmm, interesting topic. This was brought up after I wrote an article on “bad practices of web design” and it became a big discussion on numerous site. I feel that the perception of what’s “good design” is a subjective one, but it can follow specific conventions depending on what they’re aiming for and perform strong or poorly on it. For example, in web design there are a lot of conventions that are better not broken than broken that will make the page appear better. I just look at a design, imagine what they’re aiming for (I also like if they’re clear about what the design pertains to, unless it’s meant to make you think), and judge it on how well it performs.

    In web design, it’s often about presenting the information in a usable, good looking fashion, but don’t think that’s necessary if that’s the goal. 99% of the time it is. I’ve seen the following site in many “Worst web designs ever” lists, and I went to one of these dude’s shows. They actually maintaining a common look and feel with their videos and music they produce (they did one for lightning bolt). Besides, they’re humor. The site is set up purposely
    Paper Rad

    Break any rules you can if it doesn’t obstruct your overall goal.

    • bkmacdaddy

      “Break any rules you can if it doesn’t obstruct your overall goal.”

      I love your last line. Rules are made to be broken, are they not? Thanks for the comment and the visit!

  • Great post on a great subject. I really like the chosen quotes on art and design.
    One that comes to mind after reading this is “To each his own.” which to me means everyone has their own personal taste.

    • bkmacdaddy

      Thanks for your input. I agree – if you don’t like it, walk away or change the channel or turn it off or whatever. But don’t stay solely to rip it apart. 😉

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  • Great post…

    I am not sure if I am the best person to be commenting on this because my views about “good design” can be rather counter intuitive at times… BUT let me offer a spin on this.

    In this post we are looking at key factors of design, of course, aesthetics and functionality. This is good. However; what happens when we are talking about the design of a system? OR a cause? What about the design of a new way of doing things, like travel? I would not consider a train OR its tracks to be “pretty” or “beautiful” HOWEVER; I would consider what it does to be GORGEOUS… Sailing across the land, no hills, no bumps, sailing? A train? In the eye of the beholder.

    When talking about design, I challenge you, I challenge every designer, and aspiring designer to look at things through a much bigger lens… As designers we have reduced our field of expertise to creating “pretty” things and we have somewhat broken our true roles in the earth…

    “The true value proposition of a designer is the way that he or she thinks… There is power in design thinking.”

    So what is good design? In my opinion, it has some to do with the aesthetics, form and functionality of a “thing” – however; I am also lead to believe that “good design”, better yet, “REMARKABLE design”, upon execution and deployment, has a profound effect on how we interact with each other and the world around us.

    SO with that said… If the website that you create does not make the lives of those using it more fulfilling, you have missed the mark somewhere. IF The chair you are crafting does not fundamentally challenge the way we have always sat down, perhaps you hit the mark with “good design” BUT have you done something remarkable?

    Food for thought I suppose…

    Vincent Hunt

    • bkmacdaddy


      I am a big fan of “counter intuitive” when used in unison with respect to others. So I say you ARE the right person to be commenting. 😉

      I love your points! ALL of them! You have added another aspect and depth to the discussion. Particularly I love the concept of design having a profound effect on others and the world around us. It is this type of idealistic thinking that can (and hopefully will) make this world the best it can be.
      Challenge away, my friend, and you are welcome to use this space anytime you desire to do so. Cheers! 🙂

  • Very interesting post and a great read.

    I think “good design”, as you said, is a combination of functionality and being visually appealing however some of my favorite sites are some of the worst coded and are down right ugly.

    Art, to me, is not the end results – it’s the process. I think if the design process feels great to you and you feel like you’ve accomplished something, you’ve created art.

    • bkmacdaddy

      Nice. I agree that the process is definitely an integral element of art, but the end result has a role as well, I believe. I would submit that one without the other is incomplete. Regardless, I totally agree with your thoughts about self-accomplishment and self-critique being the most important of opinions.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Great Post!


  • Wouldn’t you say that there are a set of standards that we must all adhere to (proper use of colors, typography, white space, etc.)? I believe there are. The inherent problem, in my opinion, is that not everyone across the board (from “designers” to laypeople) know enough, or understand, what these standards are. And I believe that is the root of the subjectivity.

    You can place 100 people in a room and have them look at the same website and ask them to either tell you if it is good or bad. More than likely, you won’t get 100% agreement across the board either way which is intrinsic when measuring something that does not have clearly understood standards by all.

    • bkmacdaddy

      While I do believe that the majority would agree with your statement that there should be a set of standards we must all adhere to, my whole point is about who creates those standards? What makes one person more qualified than another to decide what “good design” standards are, especially if that judgment is truly subjective?
      Food for thought…thanks for contributing!

  • @Erik Ford

    I def. see your point (and agree kinda/sorta) but it does beg the question:

    – Who sets those standards?
    – What is proper?
    – Can’t we break those standards..when and how often?

    I don’t think it is possible to set/understand clearly defined black and white standards.


    • bkmacdaddy

      Thanks for participating in the conversation, Jason. It sounds like we’re kind of coming from the same place. Nice to hear from someone who shares similar views. Cheers!

    • I am tracking you Jason… See, I really think the questions you present are the seat of disruptive design. IF we all follow some “halo” set of standards, we find ourself falling victim to what I call “trend designing” on a consistent basis. It’s when we say “the heck” with the standards, make new standards, and design accordingly. THIS is soulful excellence. Now, everything I am talking about here corresponds with the whole “aesthetic/functionality” mix…

  • When looking at art, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ kills any discussion of standards or quality of design stone dead!
    You need some up front agreement.
    Anyhow, love your website designs, particularly how easy it is to burn through loads of images without lots of hoops and back and forthing.
    I’ll be back….!

    • Design should be judged by how clearly it communicates an idea, goal, or call to call to action, then by standards related to creativity, fundamentals, and technique.

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  • Eddie

    I remember on the 4th year of my career a teacher showed us a political poster of the 60’s (here in Cuba) that moved a lot of people and I couldn’t understand it because the message was based on a succes on that decade. I even saw it a little ugly but in that time it was amazingly effective. I always remember this example when I think about what good design is. So, for me, good design is good communication. And good communication doesn’t means that everybody must understand the message but the target audience must. It doesn’t matter if it’s pretty/ugly modern/old white/black… if the message is correctly received by the targeted audience we are talking about good design*.

    *graphic designingly speaking 🙂

    please, forgive my english, I’m a spanish speaker.

    Excellent post. I’ll come back for sure!

  • I think Eddie really has it. Communicating to the target audience is key to good design. There are some real basics which I think appear in a lot of good design, but they would still differ for different audiences.

    Take the iphone for example widely accepted as good design for usability and look, but if you go to a country like India they aren’t popular because the shiny screen can get really mucky from the heat.

    I don’t even think you can measure good design by how many people say/agree it is, because some people just join the mob so they don’t look bad.

    Speaking of eye of the beholder did you find a tattoist to do your scribble?