The importance of design

20 Nov 2023

By Simone Rossum, Executive Creative Director at Shift

Why is design important? It’s because design improves the appearance and functionality of our world. Designing is easy: everything human-made around us has been designed. Very little, however, around us has been designed well: designing well is hard. Like the air we breathe, great design should be taken for granted: it should go unnoticed – it should be seamless, intuitive, and invisible.

American designer and teacher Joe Sporano famously said: ‘Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent.’ In other words, great design empowers users to know how to turn on a coffee maker without ever having used it before; it’s knowing where to find the search bar on an unfamiliar website, how to add items to an online shopping cart seamlessly and then checking out intuitively.

The power of design

While it’s true that great design makes our world more beautiful, it does far more by improving on the status quo. Designing beautiful objects and experiences is not simply about fostering and elevating people’s experiences and appreciation of visual aesthetics; it also casts the businesses and brands behind them into a more positive light. Studies have shown people are more attracted to beautiful things, meaning that creating aesthetically pleasing brand experiences directly increases brand appeal.

There is, in fact, a significant correlation between great design and brand appeal. Following the recent Design In Business report from Accenture Strategy, “Design-alert” businesses achieve a 125% return on their design-related investments. Furthermore and according to Adobe’s State of Create 2016 report, 59% will choose to do business with a company over one of its competitors based on good design; and 45% have even paid more for a product or service with good design within the year leading up to the study.

Key to great design

Putting the aesthetic first is the key to creating iconic brands. As Walter Landor notes, ‘Products are made in a factory, but brands are created in the mind.’ However, great design transcends aesthetics: it serves a purpose by solving a problem in an innovative and improved way. Said otherwise, design enhances how we experience the world. How, though, does design do this? By observing human behaviour and enabling a seamless integration of experiences and products into our lives.

According to Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, iPhone is not a product; it’s an understanding of human nature because Apple has incorporated human behaviour into its products. Steve Jobs understood that design is not just the visual or even tactile experience of a product but also its functionality. Design is about making an experience more enjoyable and accessible.

Political scientist Herbert Simon defined design as courses of actions aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. Great design does just that. It takes the existing and turns it into the ideal. This powerful function of design is often overlooked: design is not just to make something pretty; it’s also about making something useful.

A designers insights

It has evolved into a symbolic visual language that, unlike verbal languages, is universally understood. It’s this cultural transcendence that allows us to assume confidently, without checking the price that a new product on the shelf must be high-end or that makes a beer label feel masculine. It’s the power to make navigating to the luggage collection in a foreign airport a simplified experience for a nervous traveller.

Yet beyond solving business challenges, such as helping brands to define themselves, communicate their key messages or become recognisable, design also plays a critical role in solving human-centred and societal problems. The world of business is evolving and so is design.

It is not a siloed practice. It’s time to forget about the image of artists engrossed purely in the creation of aesthetic products and to understand the process of design as one fully engaged with all stakeholders and their worlds. Indeed, when design is brought into alignment with design thinking, designers are empowered to simplify complex ideas by tackling multifaceted problems and solving human-centric challenges. In a world riddled with challenges (health, education and poverty being the most salient in South Africa), we need design thinking today more than ever. Design divorced from design thinking misses the opportunity to engage with the world at large.

Design is the language of brand expression, a visual arithmetic using colours, lines, fonts and forms to align with every aspect of a business’s strategy and purpose. Just like powerful writing, it has the power to manifest a brand’s meaning and experience, reaching into the DNA of the brand and extending it through every touchpoint. It is, undeniably, a vital component in society today. In fact, design is one of the most powerful forces in our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. It is a subtle yet quintessential experience that can also be inspiring, empowering and enlightening.