Monday, July 27, 2009

Good Design is… Invisible

> Evolution of ClearviewHwy, a typeface redesign to make US road signs more legible

Design strives towards invisibility–to present, to inform, to be used but not noticed. In other words, if design works, you’re probably not focusing on it. Instead, you’re thinking about the content of a magazine, you’re opening a door, you’re navigating your way through a museum. Oddly enough, when it comes to design, it takes a lot of work to be invisible. And without an awareness of the value of that work, design is often treated as an afterthought. Which is why I was thrilled to find this article making the case for design in a country that largely fails to appreciate its value or relevance. As Allison Arieff puts it:

“In countries like Finland, Sweden, South Korea and the Netherlands, design is a no-brainer, reflected by the impeccable elegance, usability and readability of everything in those countries from currency to airport signage. These places support strong design policies and a deep-seated understanding and engagement of the value of design by their governments. More than the U.S. they seem willing to recognize the value of design both in terms of economic competitiveness and its benefit to quality of life.”

From highway signage to political campaign typography, there are numerous examples of how great design in the US can have real, concrete consequences. A few companies like Apple and Nike also seem to appreciate the value of great design, and are doing quite well for it. But bad design is pervasive, and it ranges from merely annoying or inconvenient to downright baffling (just look what Republicans did to the Democratic health care plan). The fact is, many people fail to see the connection between design and their daily lives, and it’ll take more than a few instances to promote a culture of design awareness. But there are some signs that the culture is shifting, encouraged by a rise of local design groups and national design initiatives. The Design Industry Group of Massachusetts is bringing together a number of design industries to promote design and economic development across the state. On the national scale, the National Design Policy Initiative is working to push through an agenda of design policy proposals, including the recognition of an American Design Council. As Arieff points out, plenty of other countries have Design Councils, and these bodies act in partnership with their government to implement design policies that work towards better communications, services, and experiences. Given my passion for posters (and voting), I was also pleased to come across Design for Democracy. It’s an organization that demonstrates “the value of design by doing valuable things,” like increasing civic participation through ballot design projects and Get Out the Vote poster campaigns.

I think we can become more design aware. And once design is recognized as a priority, I think we’ll be pleased with the result. Of course, we may not notice it. With any luck, it’ll be invisible.


  1. Good work on the blog!

    If you haven't seen it, you should see the documentary Helvetica (

  2. Oh Lena, it's like Brown all over again, I see a sign and you see an intricate system designed to make me feel bad about not voting!