Against a grey backdrop sits an object. A logo, a name card, a book, a T-shirt—every one of these graphic designs is presented as it is in a carefully framed photograph.
Such picture perfect depictions, however, belie the network of exchanges surrounding each piece of work. All of them have an origin and an end. A design typically begins as a conceptual response to a client’s brief. It is then assembled from a selection of raw materials and production methods. Finally, it is released into the market as a product that circulates through economies, cultures, and societies.
Throughout this journey, individual images, text and papers are transformed into a piece of graphic design in a process that defines the practice as a value-added service. For many, the value design brings to a book, for instance, is judged by its cover and page layout. A more discerning reader may evaluate the book’s typography and its readability too. A publisher, however, will also consider how cost-effective it is to produce and distribute the design.
Beauty, functionality and economics are just some of the different criteria for valuing design. In their nexus, we may find a kernel of an answer to the popular query of “What is good design?”. But a better question to ask is “What is good design for?”. Even as function is a defining aspect of the practice, it is rarely a universal term. A book design good for sales is not necessarily aesthetically good. What may be good for reading may not be good for the budget.
Whether a design is good or not is subject to who uses it, where it is used and what for. In comparing the multitude of judgements of a design, we begin to understand it is embedded in various contexts. Creative preferences, budgets, printing capabilities, and industry trends are just some of the personal, financial, technological, and social conditions that frame a design. They are independent and interdependent in shaping the form and function of a design.
Contrary to popular belief, a design rarely comes out of a stroke of creative inspiration. Instead, it is a methodical process of making informed choices and artful compromises to achieve a desired product. Even then, it doesn’t always work out as designed. The perennial questions on how to price a design and measure its impact hint at the subjective web of intentions and assumptions underneath the practice’s glossy and clean surfaces. Unlike the promise of design software that “What You See Is What You Get”, its products are enabled by hidden logics often left unexamined, overshadowed by romantic notions of design as a free and artistic endeavour burdened by commercialism.
But look closer and you’ll see design as a transistor wired up to a circuit of value systems. A design is a product arrived at by designers, producers and users negotiating their different beliefs, the same rules which will eventually amplify and regulate how a work is received. When a design works, it confirms values we hold deeply and justifies paying for. But when design fails, we can begin to consider how the dysfunction is a gap between our expectations of the world versus the reality.
This exchange of values is the value that design adds to the world. Through its practice and products, design creates, connects, challenges and demolishes value systems—making the world a richer and more valuable place to live in.