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Six characteristics of successful design

mayya geo

How can we ensure the success of a design project?

To be honest, that is not a favorite topic of mine nor one that I like to broadly discuss. That’s because of its strong subjective matter—it is not easy to distill what success actually means. It could be recognition of the project, an award, more sales, more revenue, more customers, or a collection of many different expectations. And sometimes, even if you try to define it, things change in the work process.

This topic was not something we learned about in the history of art. Have you heard of how Michelangelo or Picasso were following a recipe that helped them succeed? Picasso himself was the one that said, “Action is the foundation to all success.”

Alright, but what else besides the action?

What we see from real-life examples is that success is not something that happens overnight nor can it be achieved by following a formula—unless you get lucky. That’s right, great projects happen, quite often, by pure luck. However, there are also some characteristics of success which seem to repeat in different iconic designs throughout the years.

I want to answer the question of what those characteristics of successful design are through reviewing a few proven designs from history.

What if everyone could design a product, an advertisement, or a building successfully? Are there some special characteristics showcasing a successful design? In order to find a common language, I will begin with a review of some basic definitions gleaned from Merriam-Webster.

Design, success and faillure

The definition of design:

To plan and fashion artistically or skillfully. To prepare the preliminary sketch or the plans for a work to be executed, especially to plan the form and structure of: to design a new bridge. To devise for a specific function or end. To have as a purpose.

The definition of success:

A favorable or desired outcome. The favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors. The accomplishment of one’s goals.

The definition of failure:

The omission of occurrence or performance, specifically a failing to perform a duty or expected action.

Successful and failed design

The definition of successful design:

To plan, prepare, and execute the preliminary sketch (or plans) for work with a specific function that accomplishes one’s goals and has a desired outcome.

The definition of successful design:

The planned, prepared, and executed preliminary sketch (or plans) fails to perform a duty or expected action.


We now have the definitions in a written form. What will help to better illustrate the concept is to review examples from the real world and see how the definitions apply. Successful design seems to come about by achieving particular goals and answering concrete needs with design. But how to achieve successful design, and what are the characteristics of it? Let’s see the examples of iconic design and what the processes were to achieve them.

Examples of successful designs

Example 1:

IBM Paul Rand brand redesign

IBM logo

Paul Rand, the iconic American designer, developed the famous graphic program for IBM in 1956. The redesign was a complete success that did not happen overnight. Rand was working with the existing IBM logo mark that was already in the minds of its customers.

He started with replacing the font Beton with a similar but stronger typeface, City. In 1972, Rand introduced stripes to establish a better sense of unity in the monogram and suggest a sense of movement. “I felt there was a problem with sequence, going from narrow to wide without any pause, without any rhythmic possibility,” said Rand, concerned with the visual form and weight of the three letters of the previous logo. The IBM logo hasn’t changed since then.

What is also interesting to follow in Rand’s approach is that he did not redesign the logo with only aesthetics in mind. He made sure that the logo worked in all brand applications—brochures, magazines, ads, TVC, communication, packaging, etc. In 1981 it was supplemented with the brilliant Eye-Bee-M poster, which reimagined the company’s logo as a rebus.

Rand’s IBM identity is his best-known work, and there’s little wonder why. His redesign not only changed the face of the company but its fortunes too. For the redesign approach to the project, Rand said, 

“I steered toward humorous things. People who don’t have a sense of humor really have serious problems.” 

Rand’s process—his creative and playful manner of work, together with the approach of solving the right business needs—set up the redesign project for success. The process grew and developed for more than twenty years, and the way the identity looks today was the result of these years of work. Not only the work of Paul Rand but also the business success of the company. If the visual identity was acting on its own, the project would never have been as successful as it is today.

paul rand

Summary of the steps in Rand’s redesign process:

  • Find an opportunity
  • Solve the right problems
  • Apply high expertise
  • Solve the problems through different mediums
  • Think of flexibility
  • Look at the problem through a humoristic lens

Example 2:

What made the Beetle the world’s most popular car?

think small

Volkswagen Beetles were produced globally—16,255,500 in Germany alone. This makes the Beetle the most popular car of all time. And here is how an advertising agency, with an US$800,000 budget, changed automotive and advertising history.

The first Beetles arrived in the United States in 1950. But there was a lot working against the Beetle. It was absurdly small in comparison to 1950s American cars; it was plain, homely, and slow. For the ad campaign, the creative director, Helmut Krone, saw this aspect as an advantage.

Think Small” was art directed by Helmut Krone and the ad copy was written by Julian Koenig at DDB. Krone and Koenig were indeed impressed with the honesty of the car, and they would imprint this attribute on most of the Beetle ad campaigns of this time. They advertised it within reality and not fantasy.

From the beginning, DDB’s “Think Small” advertising campaign used stark, unretouched, black-and-white photographs of dark-colored Beetles. The copy focused on particular facets of the car. The ads acted almost like Burma Shave signs did on the road:

Each one stood on its own, highlighting one of the car’s advantages, and they were so cleverly written and art-directed that they made readers look out for the next one.

The tone of these ads also had notes of irreverence and humor, mainly toward the car itself, not shying away from what the car was but rather showing it off like an armor. The idea was to contradict the traditional association of cars with luxury and highlight the advantages of having a small car.

The “Think Small” campaign turned out to be significantly cost-effective and efficient. Volkswagen paid DDB US$600,000. In comparison to Chevrolet spending US$30.4 million on advertising and Ford US$25 million, Volkswagen ad expenditures look microscopic, but they managed to show the bigger picture.

Summary of the process steps in the Beetle ad campaign:

  • Find the right opportunity
  • Solve the right problems
  • Have a different and unique selling point
  • Use a playful and humoristic approach to solving a problem
  • Use storytelling to send the right message
  • Do more with less

Example 3:

Juicy Salif

juicy salif

Designed by Phillipe Starck in 1990, the Juicy Salif is rightly counted among the icons of industrial design and has been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The citrus squeezer is cast in aluminum, which is then polished. The design is based on the shape of a squid, and according to an account from the founder of Alessi, it was originally sketched out by Starck on a napkin while eating squid with lemon squeezed over it.

It’s a perfect example of how the most abstract associations can inspire iconic design.

Starck himself admitted that it is more of a “conversation object,” highly decorative and intentionally provocative, rather than a useful object for juicing lemons on fried fish. It was just an intuition, an idea sparked in front of a plate of calamari during a lunch on the island of Capraia.

Once his project was completed, he sent it to Alberto Alessi. He had been waiting for months for a product design of a tray and so did not expect one of a paradoxical lemon squeezer. In an interview with Dezeen magazine, Alberto Alessi said that it was one of the most amusing projects he had worked on in his career, and that it was “deliberately poking fun at the idea that form should follow function.” It might seem like it was quite easy for Starck to design the lemon squeezer inspired by his seafood, but the truth is that the many years of work enabled him to recognize the opportunity in the real life.

Summary of the process steps in the Juicy Salif process:

  • Take inspiration from real life
  • Find the right opportunity
  • Find a differentiating product point
  • Use a playful and innovative approach

Summary and conclusion

How one can achieve their wished-for goals with design

abstract stairs

Based on the overview of the amazing examples of iconic designs we reviewed, we can recognize that they are all showcasing some easily recognizable similarities as well as differences in the authors’ work approaches. However, the factors that make all of the three examples special, and the outcomes of the campaigns, are quite similar.

Six characteristics of successful design:


  1. Solves the right problems
  2. Is aesthetically pleasing as well as functional
  3. Has an innovative design that is inspired by real life
  4. Has a unique selling point
  5. Is loved or hated by many but definitely not ignored
  6. Might be a result of concrete project goals

Process steps and approaches:

  • Focus on solving the right problems
  • Find an opportunity
  • Set a clear differentiating point
  • Apply expertise
  • Collaborate with the right people
  • Send the right message to the right audience
  • Solve the problems through the use of different mediums
  • Think of flexibility
  • Use playful, innovative, or humoristic approaches to solving problems

Final thoughts

All of these iconic designs were produced by experienced designers and professionals. And even if those professionals were working in different design disciplines, they managed to achieve equally good results by following quite similar processes.

Success by itself should not become the main reason for creation and design in one project. As we can see, there are some particular steps that could potentially lead to special results. What would really matter is to focus on producing and achieving the best possible work and put it out into the world.

Success does not happen overnight, it is something that develops over time and sometimes might be just a matter of luck. Consider the right process, find the right people to work with, and be really good at what you do. Do not forget your sense of humor and fun while doing all of that—in the end, your work should bring you enjoyment.

What would really matter is to focus on producing and achieving the best possible work and put it out into the world.

Success does not happen overnight, it is something that develops over time and sometimes might be just a matter of luck. Consider the right process, find the right people to work with, and be really good at what you do. Do not forget your sense of humor and fun while doing all of that—in the end, your work should bring you enjoyment.

Thank you for reading! 💜