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The Design Continuum


In the world of design, there are a multitude of factors that must be considered during the development of a project. Criteria such as quality, quantity, cost, and function may drive the design. Additionally, user experience has a big part to play in design, and things like convenience or luxury influence the final outcome. Design is really a continuum, in which all of these factors are considered in relationship to one another. No single criteria can be considered in a vacuum, since it would go against the principles of good design. The best way to understand design is to break it into three general categories: Basic, Tailored and Custom. While the focus will be on buildings, these categories can be applied to almost any type of design, whether the design consists of graphics, websites, fashion, products, or anything else. Understanding these fundamentals prepares a good foundation for discussing your next project.


Think of basic design as the foundation for the other categories. Basic design usually adheres to minimum standards and ‘gets the job done’. When considering architecture, basic designs will meet code (but rarely exceed it), support basic needs and functions, and use standard products to achieve these criteria. Basic designs tend to be the most cost effective, but they also tend to be the least unique solution. While basic designs don’t have to be bland, it requires extra effort by the designer to creatively use standard materials. The costs of this extra level of dedication to the thought process can often escalate the price, and quickly imbalances the economy of choosing a basic design. Since basic designs often conform to mass production or simple standards, there is a limited opportunity to use professional designers since their fees often overshadow the savings of a basic design. While there are savings in avoiding hiring a designer, the cost is usually project integrity. Some examples of basic designs would include sub compact cars, products generally offered at stores like Walmart, and tract or spec homes. The components used in these types of products are usually easily sourced, inexpensive  materials. Since the profits from these types of products usually come from high volume sales, quality and longevity can sometimes be an issue. Customer service surrounding basic designs is often simplified and limited as well.


Tailored designs build from the basic design by improving select portions based on specific priorities. All designs must balance budget, quality and aesthetics, and tailored designs typically improve upon one or two of these options. Tailored design doesn’t have to be outlandish. In a tailored design, more thought is put into considering the functionality, aesthetics, and other criteria so that the outcome is above average. The extra thought and effort may occur during the planning and conceptual stage to anticipate user needs, or extra care and consideration may be given to important components. In a house, the tailored design may focus more on the structural design, the unique aesthetics desired, or the longevity of particular products. There will still be some give and take, and compromises are not absent from tailored design. It is not uncommon to spend a great deal of time evaluating different options to see what one must give up in order to meet a competing goal. It requires the involvement of a design professional to help identify and evaluate the various choices available on the project. Tailored design can be thought of as client specific design with tasteful constraint. It often consists of off-the-shelf products used in a unique way and focuses heavily on value. On the design continuum, there is opportunity to shift towards custom design or towards basic design depending on how one must balance cost, quality, and aesthetics. Some examples of tailored design would be beverages from Starbucks, or clothing that comes from a department store that is altered for a perfect fit.


True custom design typically refers to projects that are without limitations. Generally, the budget is very high and the client is willing to pay extra to get exactly what they want. These projects are typically very fun for a designer to participate in, but require a high level of customer service. Custom clients are often used to having their every need and desire catered to. Some may view custom design as extreme, lacking in restraint, luxurious or as a fulfillment of desire. In architecture, custom designs typically involve feats of engineering and a multitude of bespoke components. For custom designs, if you can think it, they can build it. Special sizes of standard components such as windows and doors, uncommon or expensive finishes and complicated structural pieces are typical in custom designed buildings. Some examples of custom design would be couture clothing, concierge services, and custom jewelry design.

Armed with a understanding of the different types of design, one can effectively communicate with a design professional.

Brinn Miracle is an architectural intern, journalist and residential designer. She writes about architecture and design topics at her blog,

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