Universal design?

When it comes to design, there’s roughly two kinds if designs you see. The first is the design most people are accustomed to talk about is those products that exist simply for the looks and usually cost an arm and a leg. Then you have the design that consumers barely talk about but use almost every moment in their waking hours, like in the device you are using to read this post. The two often meet and there is a large crossover between the two, but rarely the latter gets the attention it deserves. We are visual species, after all. Especially men. You can call these art design and practical design, if you wish. This is a bit misnomer when we get to down the line, but let’s stick to those for now.

There is a line where art design and practical design usually separate from each other. Where art design is free of actual use or even reason, as modern view on art is. Practical design adheres more to research, where it is the end consumers’ needs that determine the design to a large extent.

Let’s take your bed as an example. An art designer could make a bed made of crystals and glass shards combined with other clear see-through materials. In this extreme example the bed would be more or less uncomfortable and unpractical bed to sleep in. It would be an item to look at, more or less, and whoever has the taste for such product would purchase it. That is the freedom art designer has. In practical design, the first things you need to consider is the customer group. For example, a bed designed for general Mexican or US (both rank as No.1 and No.2 as the world’s fattest country respectively) audience would need to be slightly larger and with sturdier structure due to the overall larger weight the citizens have. Easy of getting into the bed and getting out of the bed is also something that may need to be considered and here is where statistics step into the game again.

We all know that human body has mean standards. Height, weight and so on. From these we are able to determine the optimal positions for almost everything. To research these standards is quantitative science of sorts, as the data can only be gained through constant record keeping and measuring. These are what give us universal rules to design, that nevertheless apply only to certain extent. As mentioned, America and Mexico have to see different standards in practical design than, for example, in Japan. Personal preferences and body sizes are also a huge factor, yet these standards give us sort of leeway to call them a key to general universal design.

It’s really a good thing people are so different across the world, or even within one region. It gives designers a lot of work and the more people change, the more work designers have to keep up with the changes. Of course, when the change presents itself as increased body weight, something’s not all right. Unless it’s due to increase of good muscle mass.

When it comes to character design there exists a similar dilemma. Culturally speaking you do have sort of universal design per culture as per archetype. We all know how a cowboy looks like and as such there exist a universal design for cowboys. But cowboy design is not universally accepted as good design and some dislike the look.

There are those who will chastise companies and designers for making products that use the lowest common denominator to attract mass audience. (There exists more than two audiences, but let’s not confuse this further than needed.)This is an interesting paradigm, as the group who make these complaints are often than not a minority who hold different opinion from the majority. While it is a good idea to listen the minority, they never should be put in front of the majority. To use a crude example, if there exists one vegetarian in a group of ten people, it makes little logical sense to change the menu to meet the needs of that one individual. The same core applies elsewhere as well. Within the video game industry you should watch and listen what the majority is doing rather than follow the minority. Otherwise we would have fat Lara Croft.

As usual, things aren’t that black and white. It would make no sense to disregard the minority, as they too can bring in the big bucks. Premium products, be it vegetarian food, gold laced watches, goth lolita clothing and so-on have their markets that can have a large amount of money in there. Premium products fetch higher price and it is completely valid to choose to these smaller markets, but when these smaller markets try to push what they regard as the right thing over the larger market, then the industries need to take notice simply based on numbers.

Some would argue at this point that, for example with television or games, the intention is to make culture and arts, not money. This of course is largely bullshit. Art has always been commercial, even before money existed in its modern form. Whether it has been patronage or trade of goods, art and culture have always been about the money and making a living.

That does not mean people are free to do the lowest quality product they are able to. Rather than having discussion about how awful taste the masses have, the discussion is why are these people not going their way to ensure these products that attract the masses are not of highest damn quality possible. Of course, money is more often than not the main driving force (when isn’t it?) but so is are the consumers. Whether or not it is the majority or minority who are the targeted market, both sides will gladly dosh their money into products they deem worthy while snobbishly barking at the other. The two markets are exactly the same in this sense. The only true differences between the two are their sensibilities, values and preferences. One can argue that the other doesn’t care about the culture, and the other can argue that the other doesn’t do anything for the culture.

As such, something like Super Mario Bros. can be hit with two sides while still being overlooked by parts of the same markets. Mario’s design in itself is rather universal, using a design that doesn’t strike too Japanese nor Western, but just enough in the middle to look simply cartoonish. If you didn’t know that Super Mario Bros. was illustrated by Japanese company, you wouldn’t find the Japanese nuances or think about them. Hell, in the 80’s nobody cared what country Nintendo was from, all we cared about were the games. The origin of the company doesn’t matter anyway, just the product. While we see where the Raccoon tail comes from in cultural context, we can also completely ignore it and take as it is. It’s not being about making sensitive design or avoiding controversy, it’s simply about making a good product. You can see the universal appeal in Mario’s design in that while he seems rootless, the popular culture deemed his Brooklyn plumber home something that just worked across the world because how recognizable New York is in the worldwide cultural sense. Striking that overall cultural sense is important, because it allows products to succeed outside their culture of origin.

Some say ignorance is bliss, some say it really doesn't matter
Some say ignorance is bliss, some say it really doesn’t matter. I say screw both, let’s play some Super Mario Bros. 3

There is room for products that interests all the different niches. Ultimately, it’s all about applying that core design to that market and appealing to their interests and needs. If you enjoy making a horror comic with a twist, and there’s a market that would enjoy that, then by all means hit that market with a high quality comic.

Of course, if you as a provider prefer to make a small scale thing and are completely happy with it making little to no impact, then sure, go with it. After that, there is always room, and often a need as well, to grow larger.

3 thoughts on “Universal design?

  1. When i think of people advocating for more “normal” and “realistic” video game protagonists, I think of Lester the Unlikely. Which was terrible.

    1. Lester the Unlikely is a good example of bad design overall. Who wants to play a game with such a wimpy nerd character? Why would people want to even consider playing a game with such an awful content? The game was destined to fail from the get-go.

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