Does Good Design Have to be Aesthetic?

Dieter Rams is a German industrial designer and one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. He is best known for his work at Braun, where he designed many iconic products, and for his ten principles of “good design.”

One of his most famous principles is “Good design is aesthetic – The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.” And that’s what I’d like to explore in today’s column.

To what extent can this principle be applied at all if aesthetics is subjective? First we should first try to find a definition of what “good design” is in the first place.

What Constitutes Good Design?

There is no definitive source that defines this. Instead, there are many different sources, including professionals (like Dieter Rams), theorists, educators, and critics, that all have their own opinion on what constitutes good design.

That being said, there are certain elements that are generally agreed upon as being important in good design. These include things like balance, proportion, hierarchy, rhythm, unity, and variety.

Additionally, good design should be intuitive to use, and serve its purpose. It provides a solution that is visually appealing, efficient, and user-friendly. It should also be accessible, sustainable, and effective in the context in which it is used. And it should inspire people and be tailored to the target audience.

Marcel Breuer
Club chair (model B3)
1927–1928
Marcel Breuer, Club chair (model B3), 1927–1928, Is this good design? many argue yes – and is it aesthetic? Many might say no – is it then bad design for them? Does aesthetics then determine the quality of the design? © Image via Museum of Modern Arts, New York under Fair Use
Dieter Rams, Radio-Phono-Combination TP 1, 1959 – Is this design aesthetically pleasing? At the time, it was certainly something new and innovative – but the aesthetic perception remains purely subjective. © Image via Vitsoe under Fair Use

Aesthetics vs. Quality

One must not forget that good design can be aesthetic, but aesthetic design doesn’t necessarily have to be good! One works without the other but not vice versa. One should not judge the quality of the overall design on the basis of aesthetics!

So good design is about creating products, environments, or experiences that are functional, efficient, and appealing to users. Aesthetics are definitely one important aspect of it, but they are not the only consideration.

Good design can be aesthetic, but aesthetic design doesn’t necessarily have to be good!

For example, a functional and well-made piece of furniture can be considered well-designed even if it is not particularly beautiful (but that would also be purely subjective). It’s harder the other way around: if a website or app is incredibly aesthetically pleasing but fails in user experience and is therefore difficult or impossible to use, aesthetics are of no use here at all.

But whether something is truly “good” designed is ultimately defined by the end user and/or consumer. Designers should therefore strive to also meet the needs and expectations of the target group in order to create a successful product or experience.

w182 Pastille by Industrial Facility
The lamp w182 Pastille by Industrial Facility has a harmonious overall design concept. This combination creates an elegant and timeless look.
Mobile Chandeliers by Michael Anastassiades | Minimalist Lamp Design
Mobile Chandeliers by Michael Anastassiades. A beautiful combination of aesthetics, form and function.

Aesthetics as Part of Personal Values

Whether something is perceived as aesthetic or not is purely subjective. This is nothing new. Especially when it comes to human-made things, people’s subjective perceptions diverge widely, as an interesting study by the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics recently found out.

So, as always, it’s about finding the perfect balance between function and creating something that is aesthetically pleasing.

As a user, everyone has to decide for themselves whether they want to use products, websites, etc. that don’t appeal to them aesthetically. For me personally, aesthetics is a very important aspect and part of my values. After all, using an aesthetic product is much more fun. Therefore, for me personally, the answer to this question is clearly yes!

So the principle of Dieter Rams has its importance in any case. But whether the end product is ultimately perceived as aesthetic by the user cannot be influenced.

How about you guys? Do you think that good design must necessarily be aesthetic?


About Exploring Aesthetics:

Sarah loves asking questions and exploring the things she interacts with on a daily basis. Exploring aesthetics is her column which discusses art, design and aesthetics to explore, inspire and to question the status quo.

  1. I agree that good design should be aesthetically pleasing, as it makes the product more enjoyable to use. However, I also think that design should be practical as well. Designers should create products that are both usable and attractive, so that users can get the best of both worlds.

    1. Hey Joe! Yes, absolutely! Good design should not only be aesthetically pleasing, but also functional and practical. A product should be designed with the user in mind, so that it meets the needs of its users while also looking attractive.

  2. Aesthetics is an important part of good design, and is something all designers should strive for in their work!!

  3. THis is an interesting point you mention here – I agree that aesthetics plays an important role in creating a successful product or experience, but I believe it is not the only consideration. Though finding a balance between form and function is essential to create something that is both practical and beautiful, it is ultimately up to the user to decide whether they want to use products that may not be as aesthetically pleasing.

  4. Thank you for any other great article. Where else may just anybody get that type of info in such a perfect way of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I’m at the search for such info.

  5. Thanks for the article, Sarah. I think that good design should have both form and function. Aesthetic appeal is important, but so is usability and function!

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Aesence is a creative studio and digital design magazine with a high curatorial approach. Founded by Sarah Dorweiler, a creative mind and entrepreneur from Berlin, her goal is to capture the feeling of harmony, balance and inner peace in her curatorial work and photography.