Skip to content

Podcast Episode 3: Designing a Design Museum (w/ Tanner Woodford)

What actually constitutes good design? And what is a designer’s role in an organization? We investigate with Tanner Woodford.

Words by Karen Eisenhauer, Visuals by Addie Burgess

Don’t forget to subscribe to the People Nerds Podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify to stay up-to-date with the latest episodes!

Connecting Design to the Public

In this episode of the People Nerds Podcast, we sat down with Tanner Woodford, Director of Design Museum Chicago. We talked all about design—specifically, how to bridge the gap between the world of design and the general public. How do we bring more people into the fold of celebrating and participating in great design?

To dive further into our discussion, we ran an expanded version of our Scout Sound-off segment. Each week, we run a short study using dscout Express to find out what our scout pool thinks of the episode’s topic.

Since this conversation was all about the public, we expanded our efforts and ran a six-question survey asking all about what folks think about good design and good designers.

We collected data from 150 of our scouts (thanks to dscout Express, we had our answers in less than three hours). Here’s our main takeaways about what the public thinks about design.

Note: For the full episode transcription, click here.

1. Beauty + function = design

We asked scouts:

In as few words as possible, finish the following sentence: Good design is ________.

We summarized what they said in dscout’s word cloud generator:

When we asked more in a video question, we found that folks think about good design as living at the intersection of beauty (e.g. aesthetic, visual, appealing, pleasing, unique etc.) and functionality (e.g. functional, efficient, useful, intuitive).

In terms of functionality, scouts believe that a design should, above all else, successfully communicate the purpose of the product, service, or experience.

Although function is the most important, scouts didn’t gloss over the fact that good design should be very aesthetically pleasing as well. Many thought that the visual design should strive to stand out in its own right—it’s not enough to just be functional and communicative.

On top of that, scouts had a pretty specific idea of what visual appeal meant in the context of design, which included words like:

  • Sleek
  • Simple
  • High-class materials

2. Only certain industries are associated with design

We asked our scouts to name one example of a product that they considered to be well-designed.

What we found is that the vast majority of the answers could be organized into just a handful of industries: home electronics, web design, home appliances, furniture, clothing, buildings, and cars.

Apple in particular got so many mentions that we broke it out of electronics and software design into its own category. By itself it represented 15% of all our answers, more than any other category (which contained multiple brands and products).

Q3: What's one example of something you would consider to be well-designed? This could be an object, an experience, a piece of technology, an app, or anything else.

In our conversation, Tanner told us that this was his experience with the public as well. "Good" design becomes invisible, allowing the user to engage, interact, or make use of the object without using time to figure out how it's used.

Part of Tanner's mission with the Design Museum is to elevate the saliency of design in objects, from the fonts used to the materials of everyday objects, and reveal how those choices are intentional and the outcomes they import.

Beyond consumer goods, Tanner and his team strive to broaden what design should mean: Accessibility for spaces and places, creating objects and experiences that are useful for everyone—as opposed to a narrow group of folks.

This is also part of his drive to bring design outside and into the community: to show how design can be weaved into neighborhoods, community spaces, and our everyday places. Design shifts from micro to macro.

3. A well-designed product is an empathetic product. A company with designers is a company with empathy and innovation.

Lastly, we asked about what the public thought about designers. What does a designer do, and what do their responsibilities look like? We thought that people may have little idea about what designers actually do, or that their roles would be underestimated. But what we found was the opposite:

The top answers (besides focusing on beauty and function, which was already covered) put a lot of power and responsibility in designers’ hands. Top responses included:

  • Innovating new product ideas
  • Anticipating user needs
  • Researching
  • Creating a product from start to finish

Scouts assigned designers the role of not only designing visual executions of new concepts, but also coming up with the concepts themselves, testing and iterating those designs, and representing the voice of the user to the entire rest of the organization.

That’s a lot for one department! (Although many designers do carry much of that weight). But what we took from this is that good design—and good designers—are deeply tied with the ideas of empathy and innovation.

Companies with great design in their products come across as companies with folks who put in the work to understand their users. And on the other hand, companies who don’t stand out in design may well come across as less empathetic.

Perhaps that’s why users rated design as extremely important in considering a purchase decision:

Because they want a product that’s beautiful, a product that’s functional, and they want a product that has a team behind it that cares about them.

Far from being a "nice to have" for consumer goods, design—at least from this small sample—is shown to be a driver of engagement and table stakes for "good" experiences and brands.

Tanner, when asked about design maturity of orgs, feels that there's a direct relationship between innovation and design prioritization. User experience researchers who often work embedded in or alongside designers are a major force in surfacing the critical points where design can be used to improve, include, and ease interactions with an experience.

Interested in checking out other People Nerds podcast episodes? Read more of our roundups here.

Karen is a researcher at dscout. She has a master’s degree in linguistics and loves learning about how people communicate with each other. Her specialty is in gender representation in children’s media, and she’ll talk your ear off about Disney Princesses if given half the chance.

Subscribe To People Nerds

A weekly roundup of interviews, pro tips and original research designed for people who are interested in people

The Latest