What makes something well-designed?


My normal response to this question in public is, It's well-crafted and well-considered. Which leaves enough room for an expanded answer if so desired.

From a Designer Dim Sum conversation with Angel Steger and Gordon Chong regarding what makes architecture well-designed. I find this insight applicable to many other forms of design as well. 

David Nguyen: I’d like to know (1) What are a few architectural details that you actively look for when evaluating whether a building is “well-designed”? (2) What are some well-designed buildings that inspire you?
Angel Steger: In answer to your first question about evaluating what makes a building well-designed, the annoying answer is “everything”. I’ve heard it said that “God is in the details”, and that is also true. Generally, there’s a feeling of the makers (really multiple, though we tend to refer to the architect as singular) presence, particularly at a small scale. But a more structured approach might be like this:
At the site level: A building in its landscape/cityscape is like a person amongst other people. How do they behave? How do they acknowledge others? Do they contribute to something meaningful? What’s their impact on the street experience, how do they manage movement patterns around/in/out? How does their presence change or support the reading of the city on the whole? To me, a really interesting project type that keeps cropping up (first in Paris and New York, now seen in many other cities) are the High Lines, where the project will take an existing piece of defunct rail infrastructure that had previously been a kind of unowned, wild space and integrated it as a shared public space — literally flipping it from something that divided parts of the city to something that stitches the urban fabric back together. 
On the program level: for the people who use the building, does it take into consideration their needs? Can it show them the way to do what they need to do? Can it celebrate moments for them? And what does it do socially? Robin Evans wrote a really interesting piece in the late 70s about the evolution of the corridor and how it got popularized by Puritans to avoid unnecessary (and potentially immoral) contact with others, when much architecture prior had people moving through a series of rooms to get to other rooms (which led to a lot of surprise social interactions).
On the body level: does it fit us, does it fit me? The Exeter library by Louis Kahn is a really interesting example of creating fit with the study niches. I really appreciate buildings that are made to the scale of the body. 
The rigor of attention to detail. Carlo Scarpa’s Brion Cemetary is an amazing meditation on transition from life to death. There’s a bunch of things you can only experience by going there, because they happen in your participation with it, or when you watch the caretaker activate them. 
Anticipation. I like the quote from the movie Gosford Park. “What makes a perfect servant? Anticipation. I know they’re hungry before they’re hungry…” Like the perfect assistant, knowing how to show up and how to disappear.

Not everybody needs to be a designer—the world would be so boring. However, learning design thinking, like science, can be very rewarding and applicable to our everyday lives — its interactions and connections.


Illustrations and quotes by: Vernelle Noel (research scientist, computational designer, and architect)