Pop Quiz: What is good design? pt.2

Responses to the poll bore out my suspicion it was time for review of design ABCs. The correct answer is, a good design is a style that sells profitably. Any other response is subjective and varies according to the opinions and tastes of each individual. I take exception to the idea that there is a consumer vs a business owner response. If profitability were not related to good design, you wouldn’t know the design existed because it would not be available for you to see to know of it and to be able to buy it. Either it would have been dropped or its maker would have gone out of business. In other words, not enough people agreed with your taste, your fit sensibilities and your budget constraints to make that design available for purchase in the marketplace.

Taste and fit is subjective. Enough people think muffin tops and urban gangsta pants look great so who are you to tell someone they should close down their factory and fire everybody because the fit doesn’t meet your subjective definition of good fit? Adding budget to the mix is also subjective -and elitist- because it presumes we should all share the same values and have the same needs. If it were not true that fit, personal preferences and budget were subjective, then we’d all be wearing the same clothes. We’d live in the same houses, eat the same foods, listen to the same music, vote for the same candidates, watch the same TV programs, drink the same wines and attend the same colleges and churches. In short, nothing less than a fascist state -or in this context, a fashist state. Fashism annoys me. Someone who truly has “good taste” has a broader appreciation of the richness of design (music, food, arts, cars, beers, tv programs etc) rather than its most narrow interpretation, namely that which one prefers personally.

Which brings me to the idea of what is a good designer. In the apparel industry, a designer who can only design that which they like personally is considered to be lacking in skills and creativity. It takes real skill to produce marketable products that appeal to consumers you have nothing in common with. If you’re only designing for yourself, you’re lucky but most designers are employees who design for the dictates of those who sign their checks. Truly, it is ideal if you can design giving free reign to your aesthetic but you’re not going to continue to be able to design if no one buys it. Suggesting that others  are sell outs because they design marketable products that don’t conform to your preferences is unkind. Especially if they can do something you can’t. Namely turn a profit and employ people.

I found the undercurrents of intolerance in comments responding to What is good design? to be disconcerting. People have forgotten what tolerance means. Tolerance doesn’t mean putting up with things that don’t bother you, it means putting up with things you don’t like. A radio or TV show is not the equivalent of “bad design” just because you are intolerant of the sentiments expressed within it when it is profitable and popular. Viewers of those shows would probably say your programs are “bad” because they disagree with your sentiments -but that doesn’t mean either of you are right but you both would be guilty of being a taste arbiter. The only thing about either program that could be objectively measured is profit. That one is more profitable than the other does not imply one is better or best anymore than the most profitable car on the market is the best in the world and thus, the one that everybody should buy. The point is not consensus or king making. It simply means the design is good enough to generate interest and revenues from a large enough segment of the marketplace that the product exists.

Several brought up the issue of quality but again, how people define quality is also subjective -and usually wrong. People usually decide something is high quality if they like it but quality is measured by consistency; it has nothing to do with aesthetics. So the question isn’t quality but value. Most people will think a silk hand beaded gown is “the best” quality and by implication a value judgment that we should all shoot for that. Do you always want the item of highest “quality”? No, you don’t. The issue is value and unless you’re a fashist, you cannot determine value for another consumer. You’re not going to muck out a barn in a silk hand beaded gown; sturdy boots and denim are the best value.

The only poll item out of the four that is not subjective is sales. Sales can be measured, adding up into neat little plus and minus columns. The market place can measure the appropriate value for individual needs, wishes and desires. If you care more about making pronouncements of good vs bad taste, get a job as a critic for a newspaper or magazine. If you want to make a profit, it doesn’t mean you have to make “junky” stuff (whatever that means) but pursue design excellence as you define it but not because you want to make a counter statement about what lousy taste most people have. The latter is the best way ever to go broke.

More specifically, this is why I specifically asked visitors not to comment about style with respect to our first ever product review. This is not Project Runway. Nobody appointed anyone judge and jury. If you don’t like it, it’s obviously not your thing, it wasn’t designed for you so if you are not the intended customer, why would your opinion matter? More to the point, who is going to volunteer to be featured in a future entry if people are going to disregard my instructions and comment unfettered about someone’s style? I specifically stated it was not appropriate to comment about style but I was ignored. Why would any professional volunteer to be next? If no professionals volunteer then we end up back where we started. I started this series specifically because I was tired of “reviews” on other sites that were nothing more than back patting sessions that did little or nothing to improve one’s skills and execution. Hence, if we intend to improve skills and execution, that is the only thing we should discuss.

In real life, if you’re in a product review meeting and you do something so foolish as to critique the design, every head is going to swivel to stare at you. Do it more than twice and they will probably fire you. This is simply not done. Someone is buying it, that’s not you, nobody asked what you wanted. I guarantee that if a design incorporates what every person in the room thinks, then no one would buy it. Your role in a product review is technical, you’re not a merchandiser, a stylist or the designer’s boss. Only those people can make style suggestions. Our designer did not ask for styling suggestions -and she didn’t need to. The other thing is, if you’ve been around awhile, you tend to not say what you like or become attached to it because …well… it seems your liking it too much can jinx it -and it gets dropped after market due to low sales. There is one jacket I made 20 years ago that was dropped that I loved so much I took the yoke design with me when I left. Yes I’m a horrible person but I never did anything with it. I’m convinced it didn’t sell because it didn’t photograph well. Point is, sure I thought it was a great design but it wasn’t worth risking money on it if nobody bought it so it wasn’t a good design no matter how much I liked it.

Critiquing fit is difficult but possible. You can develop an eye for fit elements that are likely to affect a representative figure for a given size and style. It is impossible for anyone to design for the possible gamut of figure types who might want to buy it so it is a futile exercise that anyone should attempt it. If you are as good at picking out fitting problems as you think are, you could do this. Not so easy after all, eh?

Product reviews are not easy. Some things are not a matter of opinion. Or they may be opinion but these are professional and qualified opinions based on an entirely different metric in that they can be quantified, can be justified, can be measured and can be rationalized. Voicing a personal opinion is easy precisely because these don’t require meeting any validation standards. Product reviews must be validated with criteria that will not vary based on something so whimsical as personal taste or wearing preferences. If product reviews were easy, anyone could do them (well). If you’re going to be a designer or even a true connoisseur, you must learn the difference. Hopefully these entries will be an exercise toward learning to do them properly.

Tomorrow you’ll see what I mean more clearly when I itemize my suggestions and those from the forum along with the appropriate ones from the blog entry. Reviewing products objectively is a hard won skill that is worth developing specifically because you don’t rely on subjective assessments.

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20 comments

  1. Fiona says:

    I never commented on the previous entry but I read the comments. I think a lot will be cleared up when you tell us what response you would have given. Because you told us what not to say and, excluding the forbidden topics, I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

    On your good design poll, it was obvious from the beginning what you though was the right answer, and I picked a different one because I disagree with you. I went with “Any style I like that fits well and costs what I expect to pay”, but if the question wren’t limited to multiple choice I would have said “Any style which somebody likes, fits how they want it to, and costs what they expect to pay.” Because you’re right, it’s not about what I say. I don’t like your sales-driven answer because people might buy something even though they don’t really like it. A lumpy t-shirt at Walmart might sell well because it’s the only thing available to some people with a certain budget; they don’t feel good when they put it on but they buy it because they have no other option. Clothing is well-designed if somebody, not necessarily me, likes to wear it.

  2. Kathleen says:

    People buy stuff they’re not in love with everyday. Me too. They buy it because it’s the least worst of what’s available. The point being, it meets their needs on some level. If it didn’t, they’d buy the least worst something else. At the same time that there are people buying the least worst, another customer is delighted with the purchase and there’s no way to sift between the two other than aggregates that sales figures provide. It is an unreasonable expectation that every product we buy meets every single item on our wish list. Maybe we’ll all get there someday but we aren’t there yet. It only matters that product X meets enough of our needs that we buy it. Harsh but true. It is existing customers of a given product line that should be heard. My point was, if RC’s design is not intended for a given consumer, it is not their place to comment on its style and judge whether it was good or bad.

  3. Fiona says:

    I just went back and reread the comments. They don’t seem that bad at all to me. Lots of people were commenting on how much they liked the style of the dress, which you had said was acceptable. Some said “It’s not my style, but it’s great,” which isn’t something a professional would say, but it’s perfectly polite. Nobody said anything negative about the dress as far as I can see. I’m just confused about your tone here because I don’t see any inappropriate comments. The closest thing I see to design critique was very specific little things, like making the front hem match the back. And if that sort of comment is against the rules then I really am perplexed about what kind of answer you were looking for.

  4. Kathleen says:

    Some people’s comments weren’t published and others that were way out of line were moderated.

    And yes, saying hems should match or cap sleeves are bad or that RC should make the design fit smaller busted women were not appropriate. Tomorrow you will see what kinds of comments were appropriate.

  5. Charles says:

    I think the problem is semantics. It’s an issue of trying to use subjective terms like “good” and “bad” to describe something that isn’t subjective, like profitability. If the original question had been “What is a profitable design?”, I bet almost everyone would have picked the same answer. O:)

    Personally, when it comes to design, I think the words “good” and “bad” should ONLY be used in subjective way. Since the words – like “design” itself – can’t be quantified, why bother trying? It’s entirely a matter of opinion.

    As a result, I also think the words “good” and “bad” should NEVER be used in a product review in the first place. Sure, we can (and should) talk about “profitability” or “popularity” (or lack thereof) because those things can be measured, but using the word “good” interchangeably with “profitable” only works if everyone defines “good” as “profitable” – and most people don’t.

    It’s like saying a kid who gets all A’s in math is “intelligent”. Someone who thinks the kid is a moron (maybe he gets F’s in all his other classes, or maybe the person just doesn’t care about grades) is never going to agree with you that his math grades make him “intelligent” because “intelligent” is a subjective term. However, nobody can argue that he doesn’t “get all A’s in math”.

    So, if a particular design turns a profit, calling it a “profitable design” makes sense. Why bother trying to use loaded, subjective words like “good” and “bad” to describe the situation? (I would even avoid using the word “successful” because, again, it’s subjective.)

    Also, I agree with Fiona when she says “I think a lot will be cleared up when you tell us what response you would have given”. It’s hard to do a “product review” based on pictures. When you’re looking a picture, pretty much all you CAN judge is the outward appearance (at least, that’s all that comes to my mind) – and you’re really not even qualified to comment on THAT since you’re at the mercy of the camera, which may not have captured the details as well as it could have.

    Without being able to touch and inspect something in person, you can’t see how things are made, or know what the materials feel like – or even what they are. Like, are the sleeves non-stretch, woven corduroy? How can I tell for sure without touching it and/or a really detailed description? Or, how can someone critique the length of the side slit or the fit of the skirt in functional terms without seeing it in motion? Maybe it’s some new-wave fabric that’s so stretchy the dress doesn’t even need a slit. lol

    Knowing that style-related comments were off-limits, I felt like all that was left was to judge the technical aspects solely on their appearance – and the only thing I could think of that wasn’t at all style-related and wasn’t subjective was the stitch length on the sleeve topstitching because it’s the only thing I could kind of get a firm grasp on from the pictures. lol

  6. Charles says:

    Forgot to say – I also felt like it would almost be a disservice to critique the technical aspects of the dress based on pictures. I definitely wouldn’t want someone to critique the technical aspects of something I made based only on photos, especially if I was the one who took them. ;) There’s just too much “unknown”. So I’m really intrigued to see what types of comments would have been acceptable in this situation – because for the life of me I can’t think of a single one… lol

  7. Eric H says:

    Charles. have you ever visited Fashion-Incubator.com? A good portion of the content consists of deconstructing complex, technical aspects of various things based on photos alone. See, for example, this.

    Imagine — really imagine — that the design in question was (a) your own, and (b) a really strong seller. Now look through those comments, and imagine, again, that these were coming from staff. Most are throwaways (my own included), but after the third mention of the sleeves, I could see becoming quite intolerant of the whole process. This ain’t design-by-committee or appeal-to-the-lowest-common-denominator, it’s “How do we ***refine*** a top seller?”

  8. Connie says:

    “How do we ***refine*** a top seller?”

    In this case, why would we want to? It seems to me to be a well made garment with nice design details made in a fabric that is comfortable and washable. And it’s selling well to its intended market. What are we trying to critique/refine here?

  9. Liz says:

    Kathleen, I see a subtle shift in your wording that makes a big change in meaning.

    There is a world of difference between “good design” and “a good design”. I answered the question you originally wrote, “what is good design?”

    “Good design” is a concept, a quality. It stands apart from the product being discussed — you can apply the exact same standards of good design to clothing, furniture, or any other product, mass manufactured or custom made.

    “A good design” uses the design as shorthand for the end product. In this case, the true question should have been “what is a well-designed manufactured garment?” In answering this very different question, I agree that sales is critically important, but consistent quality and culturally acceptable fit play a part, too.

  10. Anon says:

    I spent several years in market research and I purposely did not take your poll because it was leading. To this. I knew it was leading to your admonishing me over my choices. Transparency in market research is not a good thing!

    I enjoy your blog but after seeing that poll and this post I wonder if you enjoy me as your reader since you were willing to lead me down the garden path.

    It is hard to buy your take on what is elitist when you have just told me, the reader, what constitutes good taste – whatever sells profitably. Whether I believe it or not, you are trying to forward your ideas, with your reasons, upon another. You certainly have a right to state the reasons behind your belief, but so do others. Are those other people necessarily elitist when they offer their reasons?

    That profit is measurable does not make it the sole criteria of assessing a product. For example, that porn is profitable does not release it from philosophical and ethical discussion. Its profit does not make it “good”. Folks disagree heartily on its goodness or lack thereof, but there is no rule that states we shouldn’t have to discuss it.

    That some want to consider the subjective criteria of any given item sold, does not make them intolerant necessarily.

    When I hear a woman make a negative assessment of another’s clothing, am I safe in making the snap judgment that she is elitist? Has she denigrated that other person’s entire humanity in her heart? Or does she love the person but hate the t-shirt? Do I always know enough about the sitation to accurately assess the true impulse behind the remark? No.

    That said, listening to snarky fashion students must be irritating. In that situation I trust that you do know enough about the situation to accurately claim, “Hey, that is unfair!” Fashism does exist and it is unkind.

    It sounds like you were getting some very snarky comments towards your designer in the discussion forum. When I read your post it looks like something has happened which you have not specifically named, but which has triggered a very strong reaction in you. In those situations, I get a swirl of everything in my mind. And I see all of these meaty concepts you throw out in your post. You could probably get several posts out of all the ideas you present. Good stuff.

    You know, in market research, it is very hard to teach neutrality. In training, I found that many people have never approached language as an instrument, and they truly do not know how to give positive and negative feedback in a neutral manner. Acquisition of such skills is expedited by some natural verbal adeptness and a supervisor behind a one-way mirror ready to eat your lunch if you mess up!

    I look forward to your posting examples of neutral and decidedly not-neutral remarks!

    Postscript: Kathleen, this is actually my second comment written on this post. In a fit of sporadic devilishness, FeedDemon ate my first comment. Or it appeared to. Sometimes I will see that a comment has gotten through even when the computer says it didn’t. If the first comment came through I don’t want you burdened with two essentially alike comments. Therefore you are welcome to make an informed stylistic decision using your own subjective criteria and dump the comment that is worsely written!

  11. Barb Taylorr says:

    I find it very interesting to learn your poll was related to “refine my line”. I would have never in a million years made that jump since the rules of that project told us not to critique the design. I

    There are many dictionary definitions of “design”. While many do relate to a creating a successful product, other definitions go so far as to define it as “a pleasing arrangement of formal elements as in a work of art”. I expect the answers given yesterday were based on several different intrepetations of the word. Even though I answered the poll with the obvious “profitable product”, as the comments unfolded I saw the discussion more as an exploration of all that goes in to the design that ultimately becomes a successful product. It was an interesting read I thought.

  12. Wednesday says:

    I thought the premise behind ‘Refine My Line’ was to evaluate the Construction of the garment in question and help tweak its finishing details: such as “What could help this seam to lie flat?” or “Would this bodice keep its shape more fluidly with a complete lining or just facings?” I am Really excited about that kind of workshopping here and hope it will continue. I think the focusing questions that accompanied the pictures are the key to helping people to stay on the right track in their evals.

    I am intrigued by Charles’ notion of seeing future offerings in motion…youtube, anyone? Or does that leave you too open to thieves?

  13. Eric H says:

    Why refine? To reduce construction costs, address small problems, improve the construction integrity, etc. This is the essence of continuous improvement.

  14. I disagree that there’s any difference at all between “a good design” and “good design,” beyond the former being a particular instance of the latter.

    A t-shirt is an example of good design because it can cover many different body types comfortably and inexpensively. If you have a t-shirt that sells well for you and makes you a profit, it’s a good design. If you can make modifications to it that both reduce your costs and increase your sales, you now have a better design.

    Price always comes into it. Someone who wants to flash their cash might be happy to spend thousands of dollars on an obviously expensive t-shirt. They are unlikely to spend billions, though. For that kind of money they can flash their cash in even more ostentatious ways, like funding the UN.

    It’s your customer who tells you whether you have a good product. If you can’t make a product that someone wants to buy at the price you need to make a profit, it’s not good design.

    It can be easy to make something expensive. What’s hard is lowering costs and keeping quality consistent.

  15. Paul says:

    We should all defer somewhat to Kathleen – it’s her blog after all, but I think the context of the question was narrower than many of us were placing it in. Because I’ve been involved in ‘design’ at many levels with a wide diversity of ‘products’ and industries, the question of ‘good’ design must be brought down to the fundamentals first, then applied in a specific context such as a medium-large scale commercial garment industry.

    But using profit as the ultimate measure of ‘good’ – it doesn’t hold up. Think of some of the most despicable, heinous behavior contributing to human misery your sensibilities allow: much of it is done very profitably, and I would challenge any of you to justify this behavior based on personal taste or preference, or the fact it’s done profitably. And who is providing basic medical services (profitably) to the poorest of the poor in Africa and India? Does that make what some are doing (without profit) bad medicine?

    And profit is subjective. I’ve known people who make a good living designing and building things, or selling things to customers who keep coming back time after time, and they are satisfied with a profit that some other investor would have seen as cause to shut down the operation years ago. They don’t disagree that profit is necessary for successful commerce, but one man’s profit is another man’s failure.

    I bought a tool 30 years ago that broke the first time I used it, and have seen similar junk on the shelves of retailers continuously since then – by what measure is this stuff good? Good for the manufacturer or retailer who sold it at a profit, but crap by every other measure. And good for someone who wanted a tool to use once and throw it away. Maybe the manufacturer went broke, but there was another one ready to fill his spot.

    Let’s all send up a big cheer for Good design.

  16. Charles says:

    I have to agree with Paul, those are some thought-provoking examples.

    Also, I wasn’t saying Kathleen’s using the word “good” to describe something that’s “profitable” is “wrong” – like I said, “good” and “bad” are subjective terms, so they mean different things to different people. There’s no “right” or “wrong” when it comes to subjectivity. It’s fine to use “good” to mean “profitable” in relation to design, but you have to explicitly define it that way first, otherwise it leads to confusion.

    That’s why I think using non-subjective terms like “profitable” is always preferable. And although I understand what Paul is saying about “profit” being subjective, it really isn’t – something either turns a profit or it doesn’t, so it’s either profitable or not. Paul describes a situation where something might not be “profitable _enough_”, but it would still be profitable.

    I know this wasn’t supposed to turn into a discussion about “subjectivity”, I just wanted to give my input on the “good”/”bad” thing.

    Eric H – I’ve been reading the site for several years, but I don’t think things like the pattern puzzles are the same as this. Those are about looking at seaming and construction and trying to figure out what the pattern pieces would look like, just as a cerebral exercise – this is about coming up with concrete ways of improving the technical aspects without altering the general appearance. Unless you’re seeing a garment in person and can inspect it, you can’t be sure about the technical details.

  17. Kathleen says:

    Unless you’re seeing a garment in person and can inspect it, you can’t be sure about the technical details.

    I disagree. I can see many if not most -but not all- problems from photos. This is the source of my frustration and the inspiration for the “refine my line” series. People send me photos of their stuff and I can see they’re not ready.

    Through out this process, I’m beginning to get the idea that not everybody can do it. To me it’s as natural as breathing. I think my problem is gaining the means to articulate it (could you explain the mechanics of how you breathe?) but I’m not privy to my own process except by itemizing it through examples. I’m hoping people will begin to develop an eye for the hints my eye finds naturally. I can’t be the only one who can do this. I know I’m not. Maybe we’re not common but I’m not alone.

  18. Marie-Christine says:

    “I specifically stated it was not appropriate to comment about style but I was ignored. ”

    It’s good you moderated out those evil comments about how people didn’t like the style, we don’t want to .traumatize the designer
    But also I think this was a question that was aimed squarely at DEs, and from a statistician’s point of view it was way too leading a question. However many people land on this site because of some google search, or because they’re struggling home seamstresses trying to find out how to line their jacket :-). It’s hard to incorporate the point of view of a DE, especially if you think Project Runway is an accurate representation of the job.

    You can control to some extent how people behave in a forum, especially a chosen group, but you can’t get mad because the unwashed masses answer something they come across without a thought. Don’t forget the general public is suffering from 30 years of Republican cuts to public education, this kind of thing does take its toll on whether ordinary people are able to read instructions and comprehend them, never mind follow them.

    That said, I disagree with Charles about photos. Not only is Kathleen herself well able to diagnose fit and interfacing problems from photos, but I have practiced and know of several examples of wedding-dress-fit-by-photo which actually turned out fine. Moreover, I’d add that these days whatever you make -must- look good on a photo. It’s not optional any more.

    Finally, Kathleen I hope that you have a jacket with that great yoke. Just for yourself :-).

  19. Denise says:

    This discussion reminds me of one of my first experiences in the garment industry. I was 20 yo and working full-time and filled with ambition and had desires of setting the world on fire. I worked for a budget manuf of mostly junior clothing. Everyone in the production department agreed that their biggest selling pull-over top was hideous (and when I think back, it still makes me cringe), but they did it in several color ways (both the self and trim, which was a lovely acid-wash-like print batiste) and produced it for years. T

    his discussion also makes me think of the show Hee-Haw, which was canceled not because of viewership, it was incredibly popular, but because of WHO was watching it. The advertisers didn’t felt the show didn’t bring the right customer demographics, so they backed out and that was the end of the show.

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