︎︎ Mar 2, 2018 ︎︎

The quality of an object

            I’ll admit to having a bit of an ego — which most people with a strong urge for creation probably have. For the most part, this has served me well in terms of creative confidence and risk taking, but recently the pursuit of creating something extraordinary has taught me something else.

In order to create the best possible products, I’ve been thinking about the word “quality” and what defines the quality of an object. In particular for products in the shape of services and software like the ones I spend most of my days working on.

Let’s start with what quality is not: Quality is not defined by the success of a product. A common misconception is that quality and success go hand in hand, while in reality there is often an inherent misalignment between the wants of a company producing a product and those of the person using it. Aligning company goals with the value provided — as ephemeral as it might be — is the foundation for a company that is built to last and another reason to be aware of what the true quality of a product actually is.

Secondly, we need to acknowledge that we don’t live in a completely utilitarian world, so defining an object’s quality simply by its output is also not an option.

To be a bit blunt, the definitive quality of an object is unmeasurable. At least not in a simple enough way so as to use it as a compass for what to create and what to steer away from. It’s important for me to stress the point that we can’t — and shouldn’t — attribute our work as designers to art, but rather accept that the world is far too complex for us to put into numbers, as tempting as it might be.

So how do we know what to strive for when creating something?

            Ironically, the best clue I’ve gotten in the search for true quality came from someone talking about mathematical proofs: As much as a person can discover and publish a proof of something, that person didn’t actually create the underlying rules of it. Those rules have always been true and part of the world we live in, even before anyone put the proof into words and numbers.

Much like the mathematical proof that holds true whether we acknowledge it or not, we often don’t notice the best products that surround us. They disappear into our daily lives because they don’t intrude on our humanity as foreign objects. It is as if they are almost meant to exist, and it would seem stranger for them not to be there, rather than the opposite.

In turn, our job as designers is not to come up with something new, but to discover what’s already true — we can think of it as the conflict between the natural and the unnatural.

Unnatural qualities come in the form of dishonest design and cheap tricks. It’s the flickering sign that grabs your attention, the dark patterns that make people addicted to products that aren’t actually valuable to them. It’s the empty ad campaign trying to win the award instead of telling the story, for the sole sake of stroking the designer’s ego. It’s the product that is purposefully designed to hook users and cause unnecessary pain if they give it up or that employs social mechanics to lure people from the start.

It’s design made for the person and company creating the product, not the people interacting with it.

From creation to discovery

            In short, we need to change our approach to design from pure creation to discovery.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of addition for the sake of novelty when designing new products. It’s tempting because we all know how easy it is to turn heads when doing something that breaks with people’s, established mental models of how the world is suppose to be.

It might sound like we can’t create anything new, but luckily the world around us continuously evolves, providing new opportunities for creating products and tools that are both natural and valuable in their context. All we have to do is look for cracks in the human experience and seek means to fill them in, without creating unnatural bumps.

We all too often hear “minimalism” and “non-design” referred to as goals, but this stems from a fundamental misunderstanding. Minimalism as a goal is in itself worthless, but the reason it often results in great products is that it removes a lot of the unnatural qualities. It creates boundaries that keep our desire for extravagant creation in check.

The end result of pure minimalism is, however, often a sterile and unnatural object, if we don’t manage to discover the object’s place in its context and expose it.

Again, this is not about creativity but rather observance, to discover the object’s often subtle but vital natural qualities.

A new goal

            As a consequence of favoring discovery over creation, the concept of ownership of an object also changes. Much like the mathematician discovering a fundamental truth, we as designers shouldn’t take credit for the objects we create if they are truly natural.

It’s not an exact science, but given enough time, my ambition is that someone somewhere will re-create my work, bit for bit, word by word, one experience after the other.

This requires completely letting go of any ego, and the parts of myself that I’ve been putting into my work. In doing so, I find an unmistakable duality when circling back to why I started my search for what quality is.