Where Does Style Fit Into Design?



Written by Russell Shaw

Published on May 13, 2013

Last Edited on June 04, 2014



It is commonplace for those who are practicing design to tell those who are studying it to not focus on developing a specific “style.” This is something that, while a student, designers whom I sought counsel from told me; it is something that, having worked for a few years, I in turn tell other students who ask for advice.


The intention is well-meaning: Trends come and go; discover what design principles will make your creative efforts timeless.

But in actuality we send seemingly conflicting messages. We say that design should be classic, timeless, and even invisible – but then we turn around and create work that caters to a very specific style, taste, and aesthetic. In theory, the advice is sound; in practice, very few professionals seem to execute their projects this way.

Let’s better clarify the advice.

A better understanding is needed about the difference between design and decoration. Principles of good design are indeed timeless. They are seemingly innate; we understand good design when we see it, even if we are not entirely sure why. We are soothed by earthy, green tones because in humanity's infancy we were surrounded by nature, and somewhere inside of us we still long for that calm. Similarly, the golden ratio is such a naturally occurring mathematical principle – from the design of our galaxy and stars, to flower and pinecone structures and sea shells, even to our bodies – that when we see a design which holds up the golden ratio we are naturally drawn towards it. In industrial and/or interaction, good design is that which is intuitive and ergonomic because it appeals to the way that our bodies and minds naturally function and operate. Good design is a part of our world, and its principles are transcendent of trend because they have been with us from the beginning.

Conversely, decoration is something that we create to adorn good design. Good design seeks to remove until it is at its basest and purest form and function (the whole Dieter Rams “less is more” / Braun “strength of pure” thing). Decoration seeks to add ornamentation in attempt to create beauty. While pure design is something beautiful in and of itself, the beauty can be heightened with the addition of certain aesthetic elements (huge emphasis on the “can,” but good decoration does have it’s place in beautiful design – or, as Eames put it, “Who ever said that pleasure wasn’t functional?”). However, these additions are subject to what we find beautiful at any given time – and what people find beautiful varies across cultures, and changes regularly as they are influenced by other fluctuating factors such as economics, fashion, digital culture, etc. (I could write an entire book on how I believe economics shapes art and design, but I will leave that be for now).

So while good design is indeed something that is timeless, decoration is the addition of ornaments to design in effort to make the design connect with an audience by the standard of what they believe to be beautiful at the time of its creation. This is style. This is trend.

One of my favorite designers, Stefan Sagmeister, is famed of coining the phrase, “Style = fart” – the notion that style is unimportant when it comes to design. But if you look at his studio’s work, there is indeed a style that is present. However, underneath the addition of stylistic elements, the good design shows through in the studio's work. I believe, then, that what makes a good designer a great designer is the ability to understand that style is fleeting and therefore how and when style is appropriate, what style is appropriate given the context, and how many layers of style is appropriate for the nature of the project.

Think about it like this. When charged with creating a logo for a company that is intended to last ideally “forever,” style should be minimized. A small amount of style may be present to give the brand a personality in order for it to resonate with target audiences, but an appropriate modicum – because style is something that follows trend, and what is stylish now will not be what is stylish five years from now, in which case the company’s brand mark would appear outdated. Personality is important to branding; but so is classic, clean design that will last into the company’s maturity.

Compare that to how you might design for a product. A product is much shorter lived. It is to be marketed in the moment. It’s okay that my favorite album has a very stylish cover design that follows what is “in” right now, because the album artwork is meant to appeal to me in order to create a more immediate purchase – the band will put out another album in just a few years, and then they’ll want me to buy that one, not this one anymore. And when this album artwork is outdated years down the road, I am okay with it because it almost stands as a monument to where life was when I bought it. This is why vintage is cool. We are apt at becoming nostalgic over things very quickly. I look at album artwork from the nineties and, yes, it is stylistically outdated, but it reminds me of what life was like when I bought that product – how easy everything was when I was lying on the bedroom floor jamming to “Under The Bridge” on my Walkman.

Further, things that are more easily subject to change are more permissive to being designed according to style. An annual report encapsulates a company for one year; therefore, using design elements styled according to the trend of the year may be appropriate. On the other hand, a company’s brand book needs to be more universal, as it is meant to last longer, and so the layers of additional decorative and stylistic components need to be slimmer. Print material is costly and once it is made it is made – so careful and thoughtful planning needs to be given to making its relevance last for as long as possible. On the other hand, websites are much more fluid – their design is not necessarily permanent like print; the design can change over time. Web design is also less costly than sending something to press, so its ability to change with cost efficiency opens itself up to being able to add and remove style based on trend. Web 2.0 has given way to “flat and minimal” Web design? No problem. It’s as simple as switching out the icons and buttons (slight dramatization, of course).

The process of learning good design is the process of beginning to understand the rules of form and function that are timeless and knowing how to remanufacture them in a created piece. It is the most important aspect of becoming a designer – knowing how to tap into what we all find beautiful, and likely always will. If the foundation of good design exists, a designer can keep watch on what style is next, and add decoration accordingly to increase a project’s impact – employing good design that is universal, with the right amount of style that hones in on the tastes of the target audience more personally. Designers who focus on learning style before solid design will constantly create work that solely follows trend – everything losing relevance over time, and simply trying to mirror culture rather than actively create it. These designers react to design they already see in culture – and maybe the work they produce is indeed good. But designers who work first from ideation grounded in good design rather than style will be able to actively create culture rather than design as a reaction to it – they help determine what’s next, and enjoy a possibility of producing work that is great.



“A better understanding is needed about the difference between design and decoration.”