Why is Good Design so Hard to Do?

An evening with George Aye from Chicago’s Greater Good Studio, July 31 st

July was a monumental month for SDN DC: we celebrated our third anniversary, our 700th member, and to top it all of, we were so fortunate to host George Aye. There were over 70 people in attendance and the audience was hooked from the beginning, as his talk started with the story of his own personal reckoning after designing both sugary Kool-Aid packets and insulin pens within a short time period.   

He went on to discuss the limits of conventional design standards when practicing design in the social sector. Dieter Rams: 10 Principles of Good Design can help guide designers to solutions that impact human behavior, but design is not inherently good. As an example George shared Juul electronic cigarettes. Juul was designed as an alternative to traditional cigarettes, but in the end it was another way to capitalize on people’s addiction and to earn money. The designers of Juul, two Stanford Alumni product designers, could have checked all or most of the Principles of Good Design, yet they neglected to ensure their solution was ethical and improved a social issue.


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This reality becomes more evident once design addresses more complex social issues, such as social determinants of health or systemic racism. In order to avoid using design for bad, George believes that we need to define what good design is and learn from the anthropologists, social workers, community organizers, and others that have been working in the social sector long before the designers arrived.  

George went on to introduce a new framework that includes the following three principles of good design: 

  1. Good design honors reality 

In honoring reality we recognize that people are the experts in their own lives and experiences and that this gives them unique and useful perspectives during the design process. We need to learn to value lived experience as much as learned experience, like graduate school or professional positions.

       2. Good design creates ownership 

People are more likely to adopt a change if they are a part of making it. Involving community members in the design process empowers and equips them with skills to continue the work after the designers are gone.

3. Good design builds power

Often times, the people who are closest to the problem are the ones with the least power and end up on the receiving end of a design. As designers, we need to be aware of our own power and work to put the power in the hands of those we are seeking to help. 

George’s talk gave the audience a lot to reflect on and the event ended with a discussion on identity and power that asked people to think about their own power, when they have had it taken away, when they have taken away someone else’s power, and when they gave it away intentionally. The conversations continued well beyond the end of the event and many attendees have remarked on the continued reflection that the event inspired in them.

To learn more, visit George’s article on this topic:

https://designobserver.com/feature/its-time-to-define-what-good-means-in-our-industry/40021

Many thanks to George Aye for an inspiring night that will be remembered for a long time. Thank you Fannie Mae for sponsoring an amazing event once again! 

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En Jiang