Recently I started a middle school coding club in town. This summer we’re going to start working on web design. So I started thinking about how I’d present design to tweens that lets them know that it isn’t totally subjective.

I came up with the catalyst criterion of good design. It says that:

A design is good if it helps 1. people accomplish 2. things that they want to do with 3. less difficulty.

Notably, good design isn’t about surprising or delighting or being pretty or sleek. It’s about getting stuff done. That’s what makes design different from art. Art doesn’t have to make anything easier. Art can be entirely about aesthetics. In fact, good art can make you stop and think. And careful reflection usually complicates, rather than simplifies, things. But if aesthetics help accomplish the task at hand, then by all means please dress up your design!

The catalyst criterion isn’t limited to physical or digital products. Everything can benefit from good design. Think health care policy and processes that help people get actual care. Have you ever been in a painful meeting? Reduce the pain with good meeting design. Techie folk, have you ever dealt with an obnoxious client API or baffling system architecture? Good design to the rescue! Teapots with handles that burn and web pages of businesses that don’t tell you when they’re open can all be improved with better design. There are lots of things people would like to do. And you can make it easier for them to do it with good design!

The catalyst metaphor comes from chemistry. Catalyst molecules lower the amount of energy needed for a chemical reaction to occur. How do they do that? Often they pin down parts of proteins so that it’s easier for other molecules to access something that was previously obscured. Catalysts are helper molecules.They do the microscopic equivalent of opening a door for someone carrying a heavy box or holding a picture frame in place while someone else hangs it. Good design, like good catalysts, makes harder tasks easier.

We’re going to use the catalyst criterion to build our club website. It’ll help us figure out who we want to help—parents, students, volunteers, maybe even donors? It’ll help us figure out what we want to help them do. And it’ll suggest a way to figure whether we were successful with our design. And it’ll point to things that can be improved.

I’m excited to see what the kids come up with. Watch this space. I’ll post a link once we have something up.