What Is Good Design?

What is good design? Reading the article below, Mr. Dyson would have you believe that good design mean paring things down, being energy efficient as possible, being green even at the expense of lower costs. I’m not sure that  that’s always the case.

Ask James Dyson about clean technology, and he doesn’t mention wind turbines or solar panels. He talks about the Mini. To the inventor of the Dyson vacuum cleaner, and other modern takes on old appliances, the Mini was green before people talked about being green. “The Mini came out in 1959. It uses very few materials, and it is very light, and economic. It is good engineering.” Dyson doesn’t think we need a design revolution if we want to cut energy use and conserve scarce materials. We just need to go back to making durable products, and get people interested in engineering again. The rest should take care of itself.

“I think you are brought up to believe that lean engineering is what you should be doing as an engineer. I don’t think there’s anything new about that, and I’m 65. I don’t think it changes because it’s good to be green. Engineers just think like that, or they ought to.”…

“Lazy engineering is using thick walls of plastic or steel, because that way it should never break. The intelligent way is to see how light and thin you can make it, and then arduously test it to make sure it is right. It saves money, because it lasts a long time, you are saving CO2 and energy in the production of the machine, and you are making it lighter as well, which most people appreciate.”

Many of Dyson’s machines now use digital motors the U.K. company first developed in 2009. At up to 120,000 revolutions-per-minute, the motors run at up to four times the speed of conventional copper-and-brushes designs, and are twice as efficient, Dyson claims.

Dyson says he hates it when manufacturers market their products as environmentally friendly without making genuine engineering improvements. “People install a small motor and say ‘This is green, it’s good for the environment.’ But if they haven’t made the vacuum cleaner more efficient, then it’s a bit of a con. I can fit a 10 amp motor instead of a 12 amp one, and claim my product is green because it uses 2 amps less. But that’s just a cheap marketing trick. It’s not answering the real problem of using 10 amps to achieve 12 amp performance.”

Now here’s where he goes off the deep end.

Many manufacturers don’t even bother with efficiency. “It’s much easier to say my car’s got a 12-liter engine, than saying my car’s got a 1-liter engine, but it performs as well as a 12-liter engine. It’s too tempting for manufacturers to sell it on its bigness. It’s a more difficult proposition to say you’ve made something energy efficient.”

Dyson says he would like manufacturers to introduce much longer product guarantees to reflect “the life for which they are intended.” And he wants governments to limit the power appliances can use, in the same way it regulates fuel economy for automobiles.

“You could legislate the amps that go into vacuum cleaners. That sort of legislation marked out in advance will force manufacturers to develop more efficient products. You can’t expect consumers to do it. And you can’t expect manufacturers to do it on their own. They have too much self-interest.”


I think that we have too much legislation and product efficiency rules already.  Frankly this is blatant rent seeking. I mean seriously, forcing what you think is an optimum solution (your vacuums) just so you can make more money isn’t good management and good design. It’s corruption.  That goes double for making threats about things like secession so that you can impose legislation that benefits your company is just wrong.


As far as efficiency goes the market is a far more efficient way of getting that. Give people a variety of choices and they will make a choice that optimal for their needs.

The thing is that people have a diversity of needs.  For a hotel, for instance, a vacuum needs to be quiet, durable,  efficient and light weight.  It needs to be quiet as possible because guest may have strange sleeping hours, it need to be durable and easy to repair, because you don’t want it to be breaking down all the time, it needs to be efficient because a hotel runs them longer than most people do.

The needs for somebody with a small apartment have different criteria. Somebody in an apartment doesn’t need something efficient and durable because they are never going to run it that long and if it doesn’t have to run that long, well it’s  not going to break. What the apartment dweller wants is something cheap so that they can leave it and not care when they move because they don’t want to cart too many things around when they move.

Mr. Dyson seems to have forgotten that it’s the customer that ultimately makes the decisions.  A good designer never forgets that what they are doing is serve the needs of the customer, not yourself.  If you want to sell you more expensive vacuum cleaners, you have to work harder to provide the kinds of vacuums that work better and return value. Looking at vacuums on Amazon I’m not sure that I’m seeing the value.




The first vacuum I can ever remember was an old Electrolux canister.  Now when it comes to durability, I doubt that any vacuum ever made beats the Model 30 for being the energizer bunny of vacuums.  That made the model 30 more expensive and it’s turned out that most people don’t really want to have a vacuum around that will outlive them. Electrolux changed it’s designs to meet the needs of new customers.


Good design comes from understanding the customer.  It doesn’t come from imposing your desires and beliefs upon them.  That seems to be something that Mr. Dyson and far too many others.  I can understand that.  But perhaps the hardest, but most important thing a designer has to do is remember that no matter how good their ideas are they are the servants of the customer and not the master.  We designers forget that at our peril.


  1. New Class Traitor · May 14, 2016

    I’m so fed up with “made in China” things breaking within a couple of months of normal use that I often find myself pining for the days of obscene over-engineering. (In China itself, there are now apparently stores that advertise “foreign-built products only” ;))
    Of course, the answer is somewhere in the middle. My ancient Mac SE/30 is still sitting on somebody’s desk 25 years after I bought it — but it’s basically a museum piece by now, as it cannot run any non-dinosaur software.


  2. JeffWeimer · May 14, 2016

    I’ve found that Dyson vacuums aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. They may never “lose suction”, but that might be because they don’t have very much to begin with.


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