top of page

The Democracy of Good Design

Bad design is everywhere. You know what I’m talking about.

Our social channels are filled with design fails. Listicles on Reddit and Buzzfeed are fueled by pics of misaligned kitchen tile, terrible dresses, badly worded signs, and logos so confusing they appear pornographic. These lists are hilarious, and spark a harmless version of Schadenfreude (that oddly positive feeling you get when bad stuff happens to other people).

So yes, acts of bad design get a lot of attention. But what about acts of good design? What about design so well-thought, and so successful, it’s downright democractic?

We’re getting close to July 4th, and living in the state where the Declaration of Independence was signed means The Fourth is, and always will be, a big deal. There will be political posts in the social media stew, but I’m using ‘democracy’ here to refer to the principle of equality, and how humans employ democratic principles to design better experiences. More specifically, democratic design refers to the idea that great ideas come from a four-prong approach: Embracing Desires and Constraints Equally, Minimizing Resource Inefficiency, Optimizing Value, and Dignifying Everyone.

Through burkeMICHAEL+, my mission is to help companies find their way to design-based thinking. Haworth is our most important collaborator in this. Our mutual goal is that workers experience environments full of the human touch. We are building the curve in this industry, putting resources and research into the design of products and spaces that promote performance. Our collective first step, many years ago, was to listen to what makes up a company: People.

Everyone’s favorite four-letter retailer has been doing this for decades. Love it or not, IKEA understands how design is fundamental to the human experience of living. From materials and shipping right through the store/warehouse concept to assembly, IKEA has proved again and again that design matters. Their little-man-with-the-wrench in their instruction manuals is a great example. Through imagery instead of words, people in Japan can be just as frustrated assembling a cabinet as people in Argentina. The company doesn’t focus on longevity of product (as anyone who’s ever had an IKEA coffee table can attest). But they are THE leaders in sustainable, thoughtful product offerings, in flat-pack form, for literally everyone.

The website goes a step further in putting humans first, stating, “It is time to put an end to useless products designed for people in crummy situations.” Their focus is international, supporting creation of products that fill real need through democratic design. They have a surprising list of hugely innovative products that in reality are insufficient for those they’re supposed to help. And their list of all-time great products focuses not on cleverness, trends or a savior complex. These heroes include the Casio watch, the BIC Cristal pen, and my favorite, the much-maligned but so so useful Monobloc polypropylene chair.

But why do we care? How is a straw that makes stagnant water drinkable relevant to my need for a height-adjustable desk?

Here’s an easy answer: OXO (the handy household gadget company) designs products with the tagline, “Make everyday better, every day.” I bet all of you have had at least one OXO product you loved, not knowing you’re benefitting from the design thinking of OXO’s founder, a man who wanted to make cooking easier for his wife’s arthritic hands. Design thinking, inspired by love.

My job is to make design thinking second-nature, the standard, the obvious choice for companies to create environments where everyone can thrive. Design is an essential part of the human condition, and everyone deserves thoughtfully considered environments to live, work, and play.

It is self-evident.

Mary Frances



1 view


bottom of page