Do We Really ‘Need’ Beautiful Design?
22nd March 2016

By  Silvia Sella, Head of Design, MullenLowe Open

Design and craft are probably not the top on the agenda at a tech conference, but there were some interesting points made at SXSW2016 regarding the value (and also necessity) of good design.

For a bit of fun, I attended the talk by T1’s CCO Graham Lee – “Comic Sans exists for a reason” and it was hilarious. Ok, fine, you might have found it hilarious if you are a designer.

We all know Comic Sans is a bit of a joke in the design community, yet you’ll notice it’s everywhere. Why is that? Well, at the end of the day it does a job. Chances are, that those passive aggressive notes in the communal kitchen at work are in comic sans, and they do the job in letting people know not to eat this sandwich in a threatening-yet-also-light-hearted manner. Lee showed us some very funny examples of quite frankly bad design and questionable signage. The point he was illustrating was that everything he presented, as bad as it looked, absolutely nailed the brief: the communication was easily understandable and delivered the message. He told us of the terrible “disease” designers and art directors suffer from: we want everything in our lives to be beautifully crafted and exquisitely curated. But in his opinion the world would be a very dull place if everything was perfect, and every now and then we need a little less finely-polished seriousness, and little more Comic Sans ridiculousness.

Design legend Stefan Sagmeister was of a different opinion. The standing-only venue for his talk was packed with designers wanting to hear about “Why beauty matters”. He took us on a journey through both art history and architecture to prove that it’s human nature to strive for beauty. Symmetry, balance and the intellectual value of any designed piece – from art to architecture, from product design to our surroundings – have the power to influence our attitude and behaviour. He showed us the example of how an intricate mural depicting the word “yes” transformed a smelly underpass once used as an outdoor toilet into an alternative venue for weddings. This beautiful illustration completely changed how people used the space and gave it a positive and pleasant connotation. Similarly, the creation of the High Line in New York has transformed a disused and dangerous railroad into a crime-free aerial greenway and cultural trail.
So here’s the ultimate value of beauty: it has a transformative power on people and it makes us appreciate and care about the world we live in.

I agree, we need good design. It makes us more civilised and it enhances our daily experiences; it simplifies tasks and improves communication. But does everything always need to be so perfect? Maybe not. We live in a diverse and wonderful world, where personal expressions of creativity make up the character of our cities and the people in them. As they say in Austin, “keep it weird”.