A long way to get here
I downloaded a BBC radio four podcast on Relativity (titled: In Our Time). It turned out to be a discussion of relativism in philosophy, which I will feebly attempt to summarize here. Suppose we both look at a shade of blue. I love it, you hate it. There is nothing inherently good or bad in this shade of blue, however, because of our background, culture and personal preferences, even our biological makeup, we both assign different qualities to it. This makes any one view of the world relative to the viewer.
Now this isn’t such a complicated issue when we apply it to food or clothing choices, but it gets decidedly tricky when applied to science, mathematics or any real pursuit of truth and knowledge. If there is no absolute truth and everything is relative, then physics, say, can never improve our knowledge of the world; only offer us ways to interpret it.
This led me to thinking about Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In it, Pirsig’s main character becomes fascinated by the ambiguity of quality. Beyond any formal rules created within any one field, a person can review a work and make a judgment on its quality. However, the thing that identifies it as a piece of quality remains indefinable. Often we agree, sometimes we do not. Pirsig uses written essays as an example, and seeing as I’m not a writer, but a designer, well, you can see where I’m going.
Within design, we have established rules to determine quality, like assymetrical balance, appropriate text line width, creativity, applicability of the design to the content, as well as how it expounds upon the content. But these are not the sole means of measuring quality, and they themselves are not always definable. We can all name items we’ve seen that hold all the attributes of a piece of good design, but fail, likewise pieces that break all the rules and succeed.
And so, I ask you; What are the elements which define a piece as good? How does one teach future designers quality, if its such an ambiguous term? How does one judge quality in a competition, or for that matter, in your own work?