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How to become
design literate

Rarely a day goes by when we’re not asked to buy one thing or another. From a conventional refrigerator decked out with the latest technology to an upscale humidifier drenched in vintage nostalgia, there’s no shortage of new and improved products we ought to have. Thanks to a growing number of marketing trends, we as consumers need to learn how to examine the design of products more skillfully so we can separate the wheat from the chaff.

The question is, how does the average consumer become design literate? By learning a few key design principles, we can begin to recognize the differences between good and bad design, and by becoming more discerning, curb our environmental footprint. With newly trained eyes, we can recognize the difference between innovative and obsolete technology, separate the enduring from the merely fashionable designs and spot the ingeniously functional amongst the essentially redundant products. Through the basic design literacy principles outlined below, we can begin to identify products that generate lasting value, instead of lasting waste.

There are five key design principles that can be divided into two categories: Internal and External. The Internal principles are: Contrast, Deconstruction and Integration; the External are: Notoriety and Relevance.

INTERNAL
Contrast is about balance. The correct ratio of structure, form, colour, size and material can transform an ordinary product into an extraordinary one. Being aware of how this ratio works can help us choose products that will not only last a lifetime, we will want to last a lifetime—and maybe even pass on to the next generation. Contrast is about balancing extremes to create a dynamic relationship.

Artek stools’ simple form contrasted with the whimsical line drawings of the beloved Mummins conveys instant playfuness and elegance.
The Austrian artist Esther Stoker’s geometric installation with its structured & unstructured contrasts creates captivating spaces time after time.

The next two principles are about reinvention. They encourage us to seek innovative products that over time can become collectibles — many products that are good examples, are often highly sought-after auction items or kept for posterity.

Deconstruction breaks objects down: an existing product is fragmented into multiple parts and then reassembled under a redesigned configuration. Even a small degree of deconstruction can make a dated product highly relevant again. But deconstruction shouldn’t be done just for the sake of it. It needs to be natural and functional, not contrived and merely decorative. Knowing how to recognize good deconstruction will help us select a product that’s not only useful, but also desirable for years to come.

The Japanese fashion brand Undercover has thoughtfully deconstructed a trenchcoat, a hoodie and a down jacket into a single, multi-functional and irresistible coat.
An unforgettable and unorthodox Comme des Garçons campaign developed in a collaboration with Stephen Shanabrook was based on the deconstruction principle.

Integration is about incorporating previously unrelated materials, textures, finishes and techniques in order to redefine a stale product. When we apply the principle of integration we imbue undesirable or irrelevant products with freshness. The more unexpected the combination is, the more culturally meaningful the product can become. However, it’s critical to recognize an excessive integration from an unexpected integration: one is tacky and the other is both refined and aesthetically-pleasing.

Comme de Garçons x Nike’s lace-ups drenched in paint splatters exude freshness and originality.
By adding utilitarian stripes, the American clothing brand OFF WHITE has turned a traditional leather jacket into relevant streetwear.

EXTERNAL
Notoriety is not just about standing out—it’s about having cultural and creative currency. A large number of products are designed to generate mere noise instead of lasting value. Understanding the principle of notoriety means we can identify products that stand out for their sustained design integrity as opposed to superficial buzz that will be forgotten tomorrow.

With its iconic art collections, Illy has been reinventing the meaning of coffee not only in Italy, but across the globe.
For over 60 years the UK-based Vitsoe has been producing simple, timeless furniture that encourages us to use and reuse it, and ultimately to buy less and better and for longer.

Relevance is about distinguishing good marketing from good design. Most marketing makes products seem desirable, whether they are or not; being able to detect items that are genuinely relevant to our aesthetic, practical, and emotional needs can prevent us from falling victim to products that are merely well-marketed, not well-designed.

The Brave Brown Bag’s timeless and sensible design has been sought-after since its launch in 1996.
The uncompromising style and functionality has made Timberland boots must have footwear.

No matter what we’ll be buying next, if we learn a few key design principles and improve our design literacy, we can become more skilful consumers and inhabitants of this planet.