Design is functional first

Paul Boag

When most of us think about design we focus on aesthetics. But as any designer will tell you, aesthetics shouldn’t be your primary concern.

I have stayed in a lot of hotels recently. Most of those hotels are apart of a chain. Each chain positions itself carefully and uses design to create the right image. From the budget colour scheme of Premier Inns to the modern luxury of W hotels. They consider everything to ensure it communicates the right image. To portray the right brand identity.

There is no doubt that aesthetics influence how we feel about something like a hotel room. But, it is the functionality that stays with us long term.

I was staying in one hotel recently where the artwork in my room caught my eye. It wasn’t anything that special, but it got me thinking. How many discussions and committee meetings had gone into its selection? How many different options did the interior designer present before getting sign off?

The sad thing is I only noticed the art because I bumped into it and thought I had broken it. At no stage had I said to myself “damn, that is a nice piece of art”. It was invisible to me.

How many committee meetings were wasted on picking this artwork? If only as much attention went into other aspects of the rooms design.

Some would argue that the art, alongside furnishings and fabrics, form a sub-conscious impression. They would of course be right.

But I can’t help wondering if as much discussion had gone into other aspects of the room. What if the committee had spent more time considering the user experience instead of their brand? Perhaps I would have gone away with an even better impression.

For example, what if they had considered how people use their phones today. Most customers use them to wake up in the morning. That means they want their mobile phone beside their bed. Unfortunately the committee hadn’t considered that we would need a power outlet by the bed. Or perhaps they had and concluded it would be better to have the phone charging on the other side of the room. After all that would force me to get up to turn off the alarm!

The user experience is as much about functionality as aethetics.

I stayed in another hotel a few days earlier that had USB sockets next to the bed. I couldn’t tell you what art they had on the walls, but I can tell you which of the two hotels I would like to stay in again.

My point here is simple. Whether designing a hotel or a website, we need to start with the functional. Sure aesthetics and brand are important, but only once you have the functional in place. It is the functional that shapes our perception of a brand. The aesthetics do add something, but you cannot have effective aesthetics without solid functionality underpinning it.

When assessing a design (especially as a non-designer) consider the functionality before the aesthetic. Keep asking yourself whether this meets the users needs. And to do that you need a firm grasp of what those needs are. You do know that, don’t you?