Good Design: Inside the Mind of a Designer I of II

A designer sits down at her desk and begins to sketch.

It’s quiet now. Perhaps it’s after hours, behind closed doors or even at home, but she finally has a chance to examine the white sheet in front of her. As she gathers her thoughts, she mulls over team conversations from the day while reviewing the line plan they’re designing toward.

Surrounded by piles of clothing samples and fabric swatches, pencil in hand, she starts scratching the surface. The blank sheet mocks the first several attempts: “Is that all you can do?” it says. A few more sketches in, the lines take on a life of their own, and the designer is able to tease a working narrative out of all the disparate elements.

This exercise happens before one stitch is applied, before one garment gets produced, and in the midst of noise, meetings, and the daily snafus and fubars. Successful designers have to manage the conversations in their head if they’re going to get anything done. But how?

I have found mass apparel designers who emulate Industrial Designer Rams Dieter’s ten design principles are able to do much more than just manage— they’re able to create.

Good Design is Innovative

Say you’re designing a T-shirt. Simple enough, right? Not as easy as you’d think! There are certain established parameters that aren’t going anywhere, like a certain body length that offers the most coverage, or a long sleeve for fall and winter, or short sleeves if it’s selling in hot climate areas. Your venues for innovation are limited right off the bat.

Luckily, you can still play with is its shape, fabric and color selection.

If you design for a particularly respectable outfit, certain style attributes that have historically performed well seasonally and adhere to the vision of the company need to be accounted for. But you also have to consider emerging design developments that are exciting and cutting edge. When balancing art with commerce, the challenge is to stay true to the consumer while considering new trends and ideas.

So how do you make it new? What’s the tweak that will breathe life into a product and impress the consumer into making a purchase? Is it laced? Does it have a stripe? If so, is it a Classic Breton or more of a bold multi? Should it have widely spaced or super fine lines? And since it’s spring, should it have a V-neck, or should we go with a mock neck since we’re coming off good turtleneck sales from winter?

Designers get stuck expecting revolution while sketching, so just focus on exploring the idea at hand. It’s those millimeter shifts that break new ground.

Good Design makes a Product Useful

Newness aside, clothes are not much different than a smartphone. There’s a combination of want and need in which the product must satisfy if it is to be used.

What a fashion company does is no different than a tech outfit. Both Apple and a company like Ralph Lauren have to ask questions within their wheelhouse during the design process. Some of the questions a design team considers are: Does it work by itself? How versatile is it? Does it wardrobe with other pieces, thereby giving more reasons to buy? Above all, does it add value to someone’s life? If it’s well designed, it won’t contain any other detracting details.

Designers are often accused of designing in a white tower, and I’ll admit that we like to embellish the cake even when it doesn’t need sprinkles. And maybe that’s why I hate meetings. All those extraneous details get smoked and discarded collectively. But at the end of the day, when you’re designing for the masses, focusing on statement rather than function is pretty ridiculous and irresponsible. In the case of a white shirt, is that hidden placket with outside contrast bar-tacks necessary when a wider hidden placket might suffice? It works for Martin Margiela connoisseurs, but how many people know who he is?

Remember, several thousand people depend on you making the right call, so you don’t get to be indulgent. We are talking about real people.


Good design as part of ones style arsenal with Sofia Coppola — from casually dressed to red carpet friendly.

Good Design is Aesthetic

It is human nature to gravitate toward function. Equally important to function is form, and both of which come from a variety of places. In the selection of materials and refinement of shape, it’s important to know what looks good as aesthetics constantly evolve. It takes time to look. And a discerning creative looks. And looks. And looks and looks. A designer’s curiosity should perk up for the faintest of signs.

For example, you’ll see a new color emerge, percolating from the streets, brewing into the exciting color of the moment. Last year it was marsala (inspired by a spice!), which was done to delicious perfection by Gucci. At the moment, it’s field gold. The next big color could come from anywhere: From the latest documentary on Netflix or a tile in the Sargent exhibit you saw, or that high-end collection drop from Celine, with its French blue and white stripes mixed with navy and sand.

Maybe you start to think pink! You look at what has been selling for your company. It’s black, white and neutral, top sellers offset with red or a palette of blues and greens. The merchant team wants it anniversaried (which means to repeat a style in fashion speak), but if you listened to everything they suggested, it’d look like last year’s collection. So what’s the newness? Fired up, you review your notes and tear sheets collected thus far, and then, it hits you.

If you throw that French blue you saw from Celine in with the color foundations, somehow it looks fresh and new. Suddenly there are possibilities that you didn’t see before! Inspired, you go sketching that shirt differently. If the buyers maintain the execution and buy enough of the shirt in that color, it will inject newness into the mix. The consumer may not know about all the behind-the-scenes chaos, but if it looks good the end result will be enough to make them pause and take a look.

Good Design makes a Product Understandable

Even though fashion is a business of evolution, change is not always immediately embraced in the realm of aesthetics. Newness, like cake, requires baking, and to our merchandising counterparts— who exist to check and balance creativity with numbers— change is scary. In order to embrace change, merchandisers need it to be relatable. And it is the designer’s job to render comprehension in the way they present their little idea, polishing it to the point where it can speak for itself, clarifying it’s existence. A good designer can sketch, but a great one can bring that sketch to life.

From there they’ll pull up similar bodies (designs) from previous years showing the evolution to this new take. Sometimes it requires a leap of faith. If it’s a balanced partnership (sadly, in merchant-driven companies this is not always the case), merchandising usually chooses to mitigate risk and buy accordingly.

Buy too large when the public’s not ready for it and lose out financially. Buy too little and have it lost in the racks. Fundamentally, if the conditions are right, the design self-explanatory, it will trickle down from company to consumer.

Good Design is Unobtrusive

Even self-explanatory clothes, if designed well, are restrained enough to still allow for the wearer’s self-expression. You never want to hear: “ Those clothes are wearing her.” Not good. Questionably-styled people aside, clothes are like tools, allowing each person the freedom to put together his/her own look.

Several ladies personify low-key perfection. Sofia Coppola is absolutely effortless. Whether in little black dresses and flats or in a white shirt, black jacket and Connies, she gets her fair share of girl admirers and style-column ink.

Writer Amanda Brooks has referred to Angelina Jolie as “wearing enough to make her look chic without adding anything to distract from her natural beauty.” Indeed, Jolie’s muted palate of neutral tees, singular color column red carpet dressing and black on black ensembles with signature aviators have catapulted her to the top of the subtle dressing game. Just think about it. Name three people who you think have impeccable style. Chances are you won’t be able to name the designers on their backs.

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