Design vs. Style: Thoughts on Stuff Probably Completely Sorted Out Elsewhere

I’ve been thinking a lot about design recently, namely, about the relationship between design and “style” or “fashion.” Now, when I say ‘style,’ I’m not quite sure what I mean exactly. Nor am I sure about how design and style relate to each other… I’m sure they are related somehow… but how?

So, I plopped out this question on Twitter to see if anyone had some good answers about the subject. Thankfully, I had a bite. @hippydaddy, whom I met recently at a workshop on digital marketing, had some well developed thoughts on the subject. He emailed me (posted with permission):


Good question Chase, one which you could answer a number of ways.Here’s my initial answer…

There is GOOD design and BAD design. There are certain basic principles that define GOOD design and when those aren’t followed it usually results in BAD design. Typography, composition, color, imagery – all when done correctly result in GOOD design. All of these can be used and interpreted differently and still result in GOOD design, but it becomes a little more subjective.

STYLE is a little different. To me STYLE is such a personal expression that its hard to say if its GOOD or BAD? What I think is BAD, might be GOOD to someone else…its really interpretive. Most designers have a STYLE, some more than others, but the good ones are usually rooted in strong design principles.

That’s the short answer, but too long to tweet.

Here’s another way of looking at it….

I would say style is more about distinguishable characteristics, where design relates more to the process or the craft.


He followed up with a tweet:

He definitely got me thinking… especially his last line in the email. Here’s my response:


To me, style seems like the emotional-cultural “aura” of a design. (you’re hippy daddy, I think i can get away with using the word ‘aura’) By ‘aura’ I mean this feeling associated with a design; a feeling informed by our culture & community. Style seems to be a communal thing: this is stylish [in my group], and that is not. Maybe style is about what design says about you and design is about making things that will say something about people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what design is. The exploration seems to go hand in hand with becoming more concerned about what I purchase/consume. I’m sure it also has something to do with listening to a butt-load of TED talks over the past month. The first thing I’m learning is that design is a part of everything. Bridge building, sidewalks, company structure, holiday planning, lifestyle, father-ness… all are “designed.”

The second thing I’m learning is that good design is lovely, and once it gets on your lips you’ll look for it in everything. For instance, Tweetie 2 on the iPhone is the most beautifully designed app I’ve ever fondled. I loved Tweetie 1 too, but it lacked a couple crucial features. I felt it was real goddam unfair that we had to choose between a good design missing some crucial features, and all the features you could want in shitty packages (twitterfon, et. al.). My need for good design was stronger than my need for features, though… And that was surprising to me because it was new to me — I’m never been like that.

So, as I’m becoming more aesthetically biased, I identify more with good design… and this is, i think where style lives: in our identification with things designed. So, I think I’m saying (and I’m saying this for the first time so bare with me) that design lives in the world of things and style lives in the world of people… or style is emotional currency attributed to design…. or if i just had enough goddam emotional currency I’d buy enough aura for us all to design the hell out of our communities!


Comment, please. How would you explain the relationship of design to style?

UPDATE: I just watched this TED video on Charles + Ray Eames, and the presenter touches quite a few times on design as opposed to style. He never defines either of the terms, but in his world it seems that design has to do with solving problems. It also seems that style is a bad thing I guess.

Watch this video at TED →