Can you design for aesthetics that differ from your own?

Can you design for people’s tastes that differ from your own, and do you believe that it is a big part of industrial design?

This is the classic deliema for young designers fresh out of school that must reign in their own desires for designing to their own tastes, and maybe for experienced designers with an established style. This might not happen in a corporate environment, but more likely in a consultancy.

Example: A product targeting (boring & conservative) accountants, 10 year old latin american girls, ultra-religious, Asian anime connoisseurss, NASCAR fans, Russian or Chinese elderly, housewives, etc… really anyone group who is NOT a 20-40 year old modern western designer

Design brief states who the target market is and that the end-goal is to make a product that sells like crazy. This would require you to understand and get into the mind of people with radically different tastes than you - not “better” or “worse”, but different.

I know that major design consultancies have challenges like this - one design brief I’ve heard of was a product for the NASCAR market and in the brief there was a statement iterating that for the user, “gaudy is good”

This also means you cant reference traditional design classics, end result might be opposite to current fashion trends, and if you showed the work to a US design firm - they wouldn’t be impressed by the appearance, even if it sold like mad.


I’ve had a few briefs like this, and honestly, I think it is fun to try on a new aesthetic. It is challenging. Sometimes it helps to make a few dry runs copying existing applicable products to get a feel for that particular aesthetic. It is a personal goal of mine to NOT settle into a personal aesthetic, but I know that’s nearly impossible.

I agree that I often see students graduating with a strong style. I think that if you want to be a rockstar, and when people look at your work, comment “oh, that looks like so and so’s work” then that’s fine. But most of the time, the designer should be transparent.

Yes, it’s a HUGE part of Industrial Design.

Design is a process of problem solving. And always means designing mass-produced products for OTHER people to buy and use. I just don’t see how a strong personal style fits into that.

Exactly! You get to do the whole “personal style” when the end product you’re trying to sell is yourself and your style a la karim blobject, etc… Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing, just depends on what your goal is. If you want to be on the cover of magazines, get pieces in the moma, etc… then sure, develop a unique look and style and market that, almost what fine artists have to do. Then you’ll get clients who may want to capitalize on your fame/style by getting your mark on one of their products. That’s one route.

The other route is learning to design for the target. It’s not as glamorous, the targets don’t always have what’s considered to be good taste (to “designers” but it is to them).

I’d guess that most of the market successes are in the second category while the design awards and industry fame are in the first category. Folks like apple tend to be the rare exception that cover both areas.

I am not a rock-star designer so a company cannot make money on my personal style. But my personal style comes into play when defining the design and marketing objectives of any project. That is why if you give 1,000 designers the same brief, you will get 1,000 different designs.

Personal style and taste comes into every decision for every designer. It is inescapable.

You can still have a strong personal style and aesthetic direction but design things for others. I don’t wear basketball shoes, I don’t play basketball, but I spend a lot of time studying the dynamics of the game, and infuse what I think the shoes should be both functionally and aesthetically.

We have to design things for others, but it doesn’t mean we need to pander to the masses.

To create aspirational objects that become apart of the cultural lexicon you have to infuse yourself into it. It is subjective and part of being a designer is being paid for your educated opinion on style and taste, weather in a shoe, or what color and radius to use on the front of an MRI machine.

I think it goes without saying that some of what you are comes into it. I mean, that’s what will keep you employed over another designer. But there are some that will always design to the same aesthetics no matter who the target consumers are for that product or where the company is trying to aim.

Too true, the Karim Rashid its a salt & pepper shaker, its a candle holder, its a garbage can and its a stool and the only way to tell the difference between them is scale kind of thing…

We were working with a famous designer, I won’t way who, but he is one of the 5 names that just popped in your head, and he said he was amazed how many different shoes we could design. He could only design one maybe two, and he did that now, just like he had done a fork, and a clock… and that was pretty much all he had.

I think the key is to have range, but to show there is some defining set of principals that holds it all together and makes it from you.

for sure, some designers have an overriding aesthetic (KR?)… but some personal sense of style/direction I don’t think is a bad thing. I’d venture to say that most of the more successful designers/firms have some sort of “house style” that is what drives clients to them.

To me, the idea of completely abandoning your personal convictions (“gaudy is good”) and just going with the status quo/ lowest common denominator is a recipe for disaster.

Note, this is not the same as designing for something that may not be in your market/demographic. The key to a good designer I think is being able to see those things which are “must haves” as constraints, and playing to those while injecting enough of what you feel is “good to have” so the final product works as a cohesive whole.

I’ve designed everything from price point training shoes for the latin american market to lux performance shoes for europe. In the end, I’m happy if every design hits the mark for the context, and also is something I’m proud of. Not all I’d wear, but the challenge of designing outside of my own aesthetic is one for me that makes it interesting. I actually find it a lot more rewarding to design something so “foreign” to me and have it successful, than something that I know I’d buy/wear. Isn’t the idea of challenges the core of what makes design fun?

Put it another way-
-Designing with no constraints (costs, practicality, physics) is actually pretty boring.

  • Designing around a set of limited constraints is what makes the problem solving activity of design something of a challenge and more fun!

Certainly each project/client/brand is different and requires a different approach, and we all want to avoid designing things we hate, but to some extent, I think it comes down to the confidence of the designer. If you let you client steamroll you, and you produce something you hate, you are doing nobody a service. The client gets something without the “love” in it, the consumer gets something half-baked, and you get something you don’t want to put in your portfolio.

Of course reality (and economics) dictate that sometimes there will be a project/client you don’t see eye to eye with. But I also think it’s the mark of a good designer to take those constraints that don’t meet your bar, and challenge them.

Too often, I’ve seen portfolios from designers who made excuses from a client saying “sorry, I know it sucks, but the client insisted it had to be XX”… $hit happens, but ultimately, you (as a designer) are responsible for the end product. I’m not saying that everything in the end will turn out exactly how you’d like (in reality few projects often do), but when it gets to the point that you give up and give the client what they want, sacrificing your morales/intention, nobody wins.


Great comments guys, I’m glad to hear opinions on this because it’s one of those things that always felt a little vague in the industry - should you strive set the design direction from your taste and experience, or should you act as the client’s skilled employee, integrating and setting personal design priorities aside. There is a wide range of opinions… just like the comments so far. From “I just don’t see how a strong personal style fits” to “personal style and taste come into every decision for a designer”.

On the one hand, I really think it is an achievement to peek into a niche market from afar and surgically inject a new product that sells well. On the other hand, I have my own personal taste I want to refine through the projects that cross my desk. I think it’s both.

A good example; I personally really dislike the PT Cruiser but from everything I have heard, it was a product success story and it really spoke to a particular market. I doubt a car designer fresh out of RCA would choose it as a project, but the designers really did their job well and certainly injected some of their own design DNA into it…

echoing what majority says.

All designers have to. You design to sell the product, not to please yourself. Ideally both happen but one is required and the other altruistic.

Years ago, my favourite project, my final design I thought was excellent, still do today. President came to me and explained how he thought our little hand held device required a texture on grip area, he liked what I’d sketched, but he really liked pistol grip diamond grid texture.

Then, he pulled out a pistol and showed me: when the president has a gun the president gets what he wants.

I still don’t like it.

Sure there are a few well known “style boutiques” out there, but the typical Industrial Design firm?

Here are some of the better known IDSA patron firms–do specific styles jump out at you? IDEO, Ziba, Continuum, Frog, HLB, Altitude, Bresslergroup, Insight, Lunar, Radius, Smart, Teague, PDT, Design Central, Design Concepts.

I personally can’t say I even know these companies big projects without specifically researching each firm, and even then you’re not seeing everything…

From what I do know:
IDEO seems more Cerebral from the PR they’ve put out in the past.
RKS more psychological or stressing the emotional from their PR.
Frog more iconic from the Apple work background.

I’m not that familiar with ID firms so much, so can’t really differentiate. I guess what I meant was that most of the stuff that comes out of firms like those is resolved in a certain way, that gives it a “house style” though yes, perhaps most of them are similar, sort perhaps not “house” style per se, but rather the style of common, top ID firms. It’s like they all are in the same ID house…

If you look at an ID mag (something I actually rarely do), everything has similar aesthetics, IMHO. All nicely surfaced, resolved buttons, sleek, shiny with in-molded santoprene grips, etc. This “ID style” is perhaps opposed to things like more art based ID, from people like Suck, Droog, or some of the more top name designers like Newson, Rashid, etc.

Kinda hard to explain what I mean. Does this make any sense.


It’s a great skill to have and I have to say I love doing it - I feel like an actress getting into character. Sure that character is not me, but I have fun being that character. It’s rare that I get a project where it is ‘me’, I don’t like alot of stuff that other people like, so that’s ok.

Last week I was a Hong Kong Chinese socialite in luxury Italian made shoes. Yesterday I was a jack the lad trendy East End of London bloke. Today I am a middle Eastern toddler. :laughing:

If I feel I don’t ‘get’ that character, then I’ve learned its better to turn down the project.

I also get very bored being the same character all the time which is why I feel happier as a freelancer as opposed to an employee.

Oh man, most of the firms for sure have a house style or at the very least a thread that runs through a lot of their work! It evolves over time as staff moves in and out, but it is there.

Totally makes sense.

I actually already had an opinion before the original post, which is that for most projects we should be flexible as designers - make the products really fit the target audience and be attractive to whomever the client wants to sell to… making us like design mercenaries or actors. I think it’s inescapable to leave your own tastes out of things completely, but in doing the projects you can get into character - like shoenista said in such a great way. In my own world, one month I’ll design a product for a security company wanting to portray themselves as “secure, dependable, solid” in the companies brand language, another month designing a CE pilot project that will be “flashy, conspicuous, and attractive” so people will ask about it when it’s used, and another month supporting an engineering team to creatively help them solve functional problems. I love that about industrial design - that you can do so many interesting things with the degree, and the only metric that you should be judged on is whether you effectively solved the problem (and maybe that you’re true to yourself - that your doing what you really want to be doing).

That said, I have tons of respect for designers that specialize and become complete masters in their ways of doing things.