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.

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.

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.


Can Design Literacy
Curb Our Clutter Problem?

Marie Kondo, the guru of tidying up, has become a global celebrity for teaching us how to declutter our homes. Her recipe is simple: let go of what doesn’t spark joy. But while many of us are turning into decluttering devotees, few of us seem to be paying attention to what we’re bringing into our homes in the first place.

Clearing the clutter: Marie Kondo at work in a Tokyo apartment. Photograph: AP
A Regina woman motivated by Marie Kondo donates all of her unused items to the The Shirley Schneider Support Centre. (CBC News/Alex Soloducha)

What if we rejected those joyless items from the get go? What if in addition to decluttering, we choose to become more discerning consumers. What if we contemplated if our purchase will spark joy down the road, before we jump into buying? We could then decide whether investing in well-designed and well-manufactured products is more valuable than giving into impulsive bargain buys. For many of us, buying cheap items seems practical in the moment. But perhaps we’re learning the hard way, through Ms. Kondo, that the opposite is actually true. By accumulating unnecessary, poorly-designed items, we not only increase our household clutter, but also expand our communal landfill.

Photo credit: Christian Boltanski 'No Man's Land' exhibition, a 50 ton mountain of used clothing.

Have you ever wondered how many products on the market are designed to last? Unfortunately, many are intended to become irrelevant in a flash and disposed of quickly so we can buy again. Take the fashion industry. According to environmental statistics, three-fifths of all clothing ends up in incinerators or landfills within one year of being produced; an average North-American throws away eighty-one pounds of clothing per year. Or take low-cost appliances – one-third of our home appliance purchases are motivated by a desire for better and newer models, while our old ones are still functioning. And if an appliance does break down, manufacturers have made it cheaper to replace it than it is to fix it, contributing to even more landfill.

Such gloomy data suggests we should be asking ourselves what our true values are. If we genuinely want to stop the environmental train wreck we’re heading for, why isn’t there a stronger desire for longer-lasting products? One reason is possibly that we as consumers lack design literacy.

Design literacy as a rule, shouldn’t be the exclusive domain of creative professionals; it’s a skill that can help all of us improve our ability to create more enduring homes and lasting wardrobes. Having knowledge of basic design principles and how to apply them can help us to become better consumers, and as result, better stewards of the planet.

One of the most basic design principles is contrast. If we become design literate, our understanding of contrast – the dynamic balance between opposites – will help us recognize which products have the design equilibrium necessary to satisfy both aesthetics and functionality. When we become design literate, we also become empowered to resist impulsive purchases, and demand products that are both functional and beautiful – things that bring you joy, that serve you well, and that last.

Perhaps with a little more forethought and an understanding of the principles of design, we can work toward making Marie Kondo’s job obsolete.