Unnecessarily good design

Unnecessarily good design

On a flight between Portland and LA last week I sat next to a Swiss lady on her way to Russia for the first time, and I felt a little jealous. Not for the place she was about to go to – she was off to Siberia. Heading to somewhere colder than a British winter in October would never been my idea of a good move. No, what I was jealous of was her passport. She had it out to copy details for a form, and I was struck how absolutely, unnecessarily well designed it was.

So I did a bit of digging.

The Swiss passport was designed by Gottschalk and Ash, a Swiss/Canadian design agency based in Ontario. From the embossed geometrical design of overlapping Swiss crosses on the front cover, to the forgery-proofed images inside, to the perfectly pitched use of Helvetica font (natch) throughout, it’s a real work of art. And it reminded me that the best design teaches you that the best design improves anything. Even things you didn’t think needed improvement. Form may follow function, but in the hands of a great designer, they’ll show you where (even if form does not lead) function becomes more functional, and even more fun than you thought could be the case.

Utility is not utilitarian if you appreciate the use of beauty as an end in itself. And in the right designer’s hands, something apparently “utilitarian” can hold a deeper meaning, that even verges on the political.

The Swiss passport seems to quietly declares its nationality in a voice that asks “don’t you wish you too lived in a place that cared this much about the small things?”

But here in the UK we’ve got prosaic, humble examples of great understated design all of our own. Many UK street signs are a work of design genius, stripping down directions or warnings to (what seems) their bare essentials. Even in these, meaning can be layered.

Compare the old and new British signs for a school.

Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinnear’s 1964 sign, which replaced the one on the right, reverses the order of children, and has a girl leading a smaller boy. Calvert’s girl is based on an image of herself as a child. She’s said that, in the age of new comprehensive schools, she wanted to make the image more accessible and democratic – in Calvert and Kinnear’s sign, compare the girl’s straight-backed stance with the smaller boy leaning, rushing off-balance; she’s clearly in charge.

These are my two. I’d be interested in hearing from you with any examples you may have of unnecessarily good design. I’m sure it’s all around us.