In these contemporary times, design excellence is often where you least expect it.
When looking for design inspiration, it used to be standard to visit London, Paris, New York, or Copenhagen. In these known creativity hubs, you could discover the latest innovations, find collaborators, and immerse yourself in emergent design thinking. But as industries across the board move online, and daily interactions become increasingly mediated by digital screens and recommendation algorithms, opportunities to engage with design excellence have expanded and contracted with each click.
In the age of smartphones and social media, the notion of good design “often comes from the tastemakers and influencers we follow online, and the boutique hotels we see our friends staying in on Instagram,” says Jenna Meister, former Global Head of Community at Airbnb. Turns out, having a sweet pad to rent out to strangers no longer cuts it on the lucrative temporary lodging platform (though, of course, it doesn’t hurt). The most frequently booked Airbnbs offer not just a beautiful place to stay, but an experience.
“Even if a space looks nice, if there’s no music, books to read, games to play or experiences to have, I personally feel a little frustrated. We want to offer that in a space, where there’s coffee to brew in the morning, records to play, and recipes to try. You get to be immersed in the place that you’re visiting.”
“When traveling, there’s that moment when you enter a space where you wonder, what now?” says web designer Sara Combs who, with her husband Rich, created the Joshua Tree House, their personal retreat turned blockbuster Airbnb in the Mojave desert of Joshua Tree, CA. “Even if a space looks nice, if there’s no music, books to read, games to play or experiences to have, I personally feel a little frustrated. We want to offer that in a space, where there’s coffee to brew in the morning, records to play, and recipes to try. You get to be immersed in the place that you’re visiting.”
The couple painstakingly documents the renovation of new properties along with life in the desert with photos of the stunning landscape and native flora and fauna. With over 180K followers on Instagram, it appears the effort has paid off in spades. Sara and Rich have since launched two additional Airbnbs and co-authored a design book on desert living. This Fall, they plan to open a gut-renovated, five-suite inn in Tucson, AZ, their most ambitious project yet. (Bookings available now on Airbnb.)
But outside of the perception-skewing lens of social media and vicarious living, the influence of design persists. “We often equate design with the arts but design is everywhere. Street grids and auto engines are just as 'designed' as a fashion item," says Rachel Romano, a semiotics expert at Microsoft who works on a design incubation team. “As people, we intuitively feel a certain way when we interact with good design, which starts with a fundamental understanding of human needs. It considers how people use a space, how they move and collaborate in it. Is it aesthetically stimulating? This is sometimes easiest to perceive in public spaces.”
“We often equate design with the arts but design is everywhere. Street grids and auto engines are just as 'designed' as a fashion item.”
Consider your neighborhood coffee shop and the evolution of the coffee shop aesthetic. Once a place associated with dog-eared books, salvaged tables and secondhand chairs, coffee shops now accommodate an increasingly remote workforce that’s become accustomed to free wifi along with their single origin brews. As digital connectivity streamlines operations and knowledge sharing, coffee shops have become a natural extension of the modern office––open plan, communal, and aesthetically uniform to boot. (The considerate ones even make electrical outlets available to customers.)
“Oftentimes it’s harder to know when people intersect with good design because when it’s really good, you don’t notice it,” says Romano, echoing an expression more often attributed to a competitor tech company. (“It just works” was a familiar refrain of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in interviews and presentations throughout his career, intimating the appeal of Apple products for tech fanatics and novices alike.)
“Oftentimes it’s harder to know when people intersect with good design because when it’s really good, you don’t notice it.”
But while varying realms of good design surround us, from mobile interfaces to coffee shops, the desired outcome is consistent. At companies like Airbnb, for instance, where establishing trust between strangers is paramount, good design facilitates a feeling. “It’s emotional,” says Jenna Meister, who helped establish best practices for Airbnb hosts across five continents. “A good host makes you feel at home,” she says. “Things are easy and intuitive to find. Even simple things are by design, like keeping silverware in the kitchen drawer you automatically reach for, placing a plug right by the nightstand, or a hook right where you would drop your towel in the bathroom.”
Simple, sure, but they make all the difference for anyone who’s ever had to fumble for a light switch in the dark in an unfamiliar home.
In his 2010 TED talk, the late philosopher Denis Dutton theorized that “human beings have a permanent innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts. We find beauty in something done well.”
If taken literally, then what we perceive as good design would implicate mastery of ability and aesthetic. With interior design, you might ask: Is this furniture ergonomic and pleasing to the eye? Is it a commercial success? (Who gets to decide, anyway?)
“Human beings have a permanent innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts. We find beauty in something done well.”
Today, good design slips inconspicuously into everyday life. It’s the conscientious and hip new bar using produce scraps in its cocktail program, or the background cloud sync between your mobile and desktop devices. It’s the moment of truth, explains Jenna Meister, when Airbnb guests open the front door and discover, to everyone’s relief, that a listing is as described. More and more, it’s also integrity of the supply chain, and transparency with consumers who want to know the provenance of the things they buy (and buy into).
Ultimately, good design focuses on the end-to-end user experience “because the experience is where the user lives,” says Rachel Romano.
Most consumers may never understand the mechanism and thinking behind the products they use and places they frequent, but they know how they feel when they’re there. In our increasingly high-tech world, design plays an integral role on the backend, working furiously to ensure the front of house — the tangible and observable — runs with ease. Because when it’s good, you don’t even notice it.