Good design is honest

Mar 13th, 2015
Giovanni Donelli


“Design does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.” 

— Dieter Rams, Principles for good design

I grew up near the city of Modena, Italy, a place famous for its fast cars. In those days, you would see quite a number of them on the town streets. Sexy Ferraris and Lamborghinis were being regularly taken out for a spin just outside of their factories.

When I was a child, I didn’t really understand what made a Ferrari car so special. I thought the magic was all its appearance. I remember asking my dad, why couldn’t Ford make a car that looked as sexy as a Ferrari? A super sexy Ferrari chassis and a Ford engine. Maybe even my family could finally own an affordable good looking car like those!


As a designer today, I understand that is a terrible idea. Whenever there is a disconnect in the design of a product we feel scammed. The design feels deceiving, dishonest.

This might seem obvious. But is honesty in design really obvious these days? I am going to give 2 examples to show that even major design companies still struggle with honesty.

The Ferrari example above, should clarify that honest design it is not only about the facade of a product, but the intrinsic message associate with it. Some people call this marketing…

Marketing Case Study: Apple’s ResearchKit & Apple Watch

The principle of honest design is equally important in marketing. In the latest Apple keynote, titled “Spring Forward”, we find examples of both honest & dishonest design.

Jeff Williams

Apple introduced ResearchKit, a new set of tools to help universities enroll iPhone users in medical research projects. This enables research centers an unprecedented level of access to a large set of the population for the purpose of medical research. The marketing message and the product are aligned. The design is honest. ResearchKit has the potential of improving our lives. On stage during the keynote, Jeff Williams, appears convincing (Minute 16 in the keynote).

Apple Debuts New Watch

Also in the latest keynote, Apple introduced (again) the Apple watch. To talk about it, they decided to use a testimonial: Christy Turlington Burns. She is an ex-supermodel and mother, turned founder of “Every Mother Counts”, a non-profit organization dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother. We find her in Africa running a marathon but what does that have to do with Apple Watch or her mission?

There is a profound disconnect between the Apple Watch and Christy’s mission. The Apple Watch is a tech gadget with a potential price point of over $10,000. It has nothing to do with helping charity. It feels like Apple is trying to hide something by associating themselves with Christy. The iPhone didn’t need a celebrity testimonial to convince us that it was awesome. Not even Tim Cook and Christy Turlington Burns appear convincing on stage. Their conversation on stage is super awkward and unnatural. It happens at minute 64 in the keynote, judge for yourself.

Product Case Study: Adobe Ink & Pencil by FiftyThree

Many companies have designed styluses for the iPad, while building Astropad, we reviewed the entire market. Two companies in particular took very different approaches.


Adobe created Ink, a beautiful piece of curved aluminum with a very slick white enclosure. It even has multiple colors LEDs in the back of the pen that create a very cool rainbow effect when you charge it. The external design is fantastic, it feels like a futuristic stylus from outer space.

Unfortunately, when you actually use it you quickly realize the stylus lacks precision. When you put the tip of the stylish down, 90% of the time the stylus doesn’t draw where you expect it. The stylus has an amazing chassis with a poor engine. User reviews show complete disappointment with the dishonest design.


FiftyThree instead, took a radically different approach when designing Pencil.  The design is down to earth, literally, the stylus is made of natural wood. The stylus is pleasant to the eye and looks like a friendly large crayon. It is not claiming to be more than a regular “pencil”.  Given the fat crayon tip you don’t have expectations of incredible precision, but in use it is quite nice. The design is honest and people resonate with it.


Honest design is hard. It takes into account the experience of a product as a whole. It is a cross functional effort that involves multiple teams, sometimes entire departments.

A product perceived as honest will show respect for its buyer. It will create a sense of trust, which is one of the most valuable intangibles we can find in a product.

When designing Astropad, honesty was one of our key objectives, but this will be the subject of another blog post…

Comments 8

  • Great article guys! I use the pencil by 53 myself and I actually bought it because of it’s design and by how 53 presents the pencil. I do want a pencil that is more professional, still wondering which one to buy, any suggestions?

  • I like this marketing—that means it’s honest.

    I don’t like that marketing—that means it’s dishonest.

    • I think I am giving some more reasoning behind my thoughts, more than just pure personal like/dislike.
      Why are you saying that?

    • o_O They did a pretty good job laying out their reasoning for the position that Pencil’s performance matched expectations based on appearance. If the adobe stylus isn’t at least a little bit more precise than the Pencil then wouldn’t it be fair to say that the appearance promises more than it delivers?

  • spot on! Tim and Christy … What was that? Most awkward moment in Apple’s history! Furthermore , for some people ,- she might be an icon, but for me she is just one of those fashion victims … Sad.

  • Giovanni- your example about Ford & Ferrari is particularly interesting given the history those companies share. Ford almost bought Ferrari, but the deal fell through. In the aftermath, Ford built the original GT40 to compete directly with the racing program it sought from Ferrari. In that case, Ford made an strikingly designed AND engineered car, a wonderful example of honest design that talks an walks.

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