I was working remotely from home…surely, I would need a “distraction” of some kind to keep me occupied during the pandemic? Luckily, I was able to buy a 1972 Yamaha 360 motorcycle (running, but in need of renovation). I have been enamored with this bike’s classic aesthetic since I was a teenager, but it’s also a wonderful example of no-frills engineering; one cylinder, two-cycle, 360 cc’s. It’s an incredibly straightforward design that deftly balances function with aesthetics.

As I began the renovation, I just happened to be reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Persig’s classic philosophical “journey.” In the book, Pirsig’s alter ego, Phaedrus, is consumed by a nagging question: How does one define “Quality?” Persig uses a cross-country road trip and the on-going maintenance of his motorcycle to convey his own understanding of quality. Eventually, he concludes that quality cannot be defined in rational terms; it is evident only when it happens.

I got on with my renovation and, as I read further, I began to see similarities between this narrative on Quality, the finely tuned balance of function and aesthetic in my own motorcycle, and, perhaps more importantly, how we approach our work as designers. You see, though it’s difficult to measure, Quality is everything: it can make the difference between a design that genuinely enhances people’s lives and one that won’t function as intended. According to Persig, Quality can be understood from two different perspectives: the Romantic and the Classical. Those who view the world from a Romantic perspective tend to focus on being in the moment. While they may not be interested in a rational analysis of how something actually works, they know a pleasing aesthetic when they see it. On the other hand, someone who views design from the Classical point-of-view may consider its appearance secondary and seek to fully understand its inner workings; they want to know what makes this thing tick!

When we first meet on new projects, virtually every client seeks Quality. But how do we as designers create something so difficult to define? We strive to design high-quality products that strike that delicate balance between these different paths to a shared conclusion. It’s our responsibility to develop rational solutions to our client’s design challenges that will function well (the Classical solution) but that also embrace the vitally important role of responsibly crafting and managing a solution’s aesthetic, of creating something that will meet our client’s visual objectives (the Romantic solution).

Managed properly, this harmony of function and aesthetics is what ultimately helps us create Quality, that undefinable “thing” that magically sets a park or neighborhood or an RV resort or a veteran’s cemetery apart from all the rest. So, the next time you get ready to kick off a new project—be it a motorcycle renovation or a master planned community—reflect on the importance of this relationship between the functional (Classical) and the aesthetic (Romantic) and its potential impact on the Quality you seek to create.

Oh, I almost forgot…the bike isn’t completely back together yet, but it looks fabulous!