Good design and Ballroom dancing

Dieter Rams

By Sasha Pust

Every year, couples from all over the world come to the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool to dance and take part at one of the most beautiful dance festivals in the world.

The Empress Orchestra and the dancers are performing better and better every year and enjoying themselves on that “sacred” floor.

There is this sense of magical energy lingering in the Ballroom.

The beautiful thing is – the dancers themselves contribute to this magic. Every year they prepare especially for this event. They know that the audience and the adjudicators here are the most knowledgeable people in the world. They know that only good quality of dancing is appreciated and awarded. They know they have to look their best on that legendary floor….

This is where all the imagination and flamboyant ideas come to life. It seems as if couples are not only competing in the quality of their dancing, they are also competing with their images on the floor. And true to the word, every year we do see some very over the top (crazy), exaggerated, exciting, outstanding, and wonderful designs on the floor – all mixed together. Some of them stand out for their eccentricity, some of them – only a few – stand out for truly good design.

And you cannot help but wonder, what does it take for a design to become great and outstanding? Is there a secret formula perhaps, a magic touch?

Of course, there is always a thing called Personal Taste, but when you see a good design, you have to agree it is a good design, whether you like it or not .

There are some “laws” that define a Good (outstanding) Design:

(please do not take them so much as laws – more as a guiding light)

In our everyday lives we encounter design everywhere.

All the finished products that we see on the shelves in the store are designed with a purpose to sell better, to have a competitive edge over the next product on the shelve.

We almost don’t think about it anymore. It becomes like the air we breathe – a given.

But every once in a while, some really good design catches our eyes and convinces us to buy the product, or at least makes us stop and admire.

(Take a look at Juicer by Philippe Stark, or Apple products…)

Their form tells the story of  function – usability and beauty at the same time.

Dieter Rams, a very famous Industrial Designer says that users (spectators) always react positively when things are understandable.

According to him:

“Good design is innovative

Good design should make a product useful

Good design is aesthetic design

Good design is honest

Good design is unobtrusive

Good design is long-lived

Good design is consistent in every detail

Good design is environmentally friendly

Last, but not least: good design is as little design as possible”

These are laws for good Industrial Design, but they are also quite universal, stretching a bit further to other “designs”.

With industrial design, Technology makes things possible.

Design finds solutions and gives form and presentation to the product.

With Fashion Design things appear to become more complex.

In Fashion, the product we need to “sell” is a human being and this complicates things considerably.

Many of the readers would think by now I have made a mistake and the product we need to sell is a garment, a dress… well, not really, although a lot of the people would have this point of view.

And this is why we would sometimes see “dresses” walking around – not actual people.

There are so many different body and skin types, not to mention so many different characters and egos that need to be dressed up and presented.

What good  Fashion Design really does is brings a person out into the light, works and plays with body and skin types, proportions, character and charisma.

And this is not all – we do not really see ladies walking around in Baroque, Renaissance, or

Fin-de-siecle dresses, even if we might like them… It is because there have been social and political changes, not to mention life styles have changed considerably. But above all, technology has developed (new materials, new dyeing techniques, new manufacturing techniques, new logistics).

So, Fashion Design is a species of Industrial Design as well.

The only segment of Fashion Industry that (maybe) defies the “pull” into Industrial Design, is Haute Couture.

 Haute Couture is a bridge between Fashion and Art,

where a lot of the times a garment is a finished product, designed and meant to be adored, admired and worshiped, even if it is displayed only on mannequins (not a person wearing the garment).

In this world, words like practicality, wearability, cost, usage of material, hours of work, are an absolute tabu.

What is considered, welcome and embraced, are words like artistic, beautiful, magical, sexy, seductive, expensive, opulent, exotic, different…

This world is all about luscious, expensive and seductive displays. It is a Fairy Tale and many people crave for this world, especially the ballroom dancers.

Even ballroom dancing itself has become a kind of an “Haute Couture” version of social dancing.

In a sense we are selling a fairy tale. So, why not make parallels?

Well, I wouldn’t go as far as that. Although I would say that the lines do cross…

Ballroom dancing is a highly technical art, or discipline, and the quality of the couples is getting better every year. Bodies are much more in shape than they used to be, dancers understand the technique and mechanics of movement much more, body connections and partnering are getting better…

All things considered, bodies of the dancers have become well oiled, beautiful and able “products” that need a good form and presentation. And “Voila”, we made a full circle, back to the “laws” of good Design.

Which means that the product we need to “sell” is a dancer and his/her quality of dancing (not a costume, or a dress).

Good Design in ballroom dancing needs to be:

– Understandable and readable

(spectator must immediately “understand” the concept of the presentation)

 -Innovative and artistic

(It needs to follow and adapt to the dancer’s character and style of dancing, even hint to new directions, search new and different ways and techniques to help bring out the best features of the body and dance and possibly hide the weak parts) 

– Aesthetic

(it needs to take care of materials, proportions, body types, color combinations and ratios)  

– Honest  and authentic

(it needs to work with the character of the dance and search for even deeper personal characteristics of the dancer) 


(the design should not “scream” into spectator’s face and it should not appear as though you see only a dress on the floor instead of a dancer) 


(good design stays in your memory long after the event is over – sometimes even for years)

consistent in every detail

(no explanation needed here)

As little design as possible

(It must incorporate a sense of hierarchy – what is important and what is not.

Sometimes, with really top dancers it would almost appear as though getting “design” out of the way. In these rare cases, design would feel almost inevitable, almost like: “It had to be this way, why would it be any other way.”)

(words borrowed from Jonathan Ive – head designer for Apple products)

Going back in our memory to Empress Ballroom floor, we see all kinds of “forms and presentations”.

If our memory serves us well, we would probably immediately forget some overly simplistic designs (usually the ones that are not very aesthetic, authentic, innovative, artistic and consistent in every detail)

Than, second to go from our memory would probably be obtrusive designs – designs that are loud and scream in our faces, designs that are not very understandable, or readable, nor very aesthetic, where you only see the dress, but not the dancer.

What will stay in our memory are some innovative designs – that are not necessarily aesthetic, or consistent in every detail, but do posses some interesting and artistic ideas.

Even better to remember would be Honest and Authentic designs, with a touch of innovation and artistry to them. They are readable, aesthetic and consistent in every detail. Those are already designs that some of the top 24 couples would wear.

Some of the best to remember, are the designs that posses a wonderful balance between  all of the above (being readable, innovative, artistic, aesthetic, authentic, unobtrusive, long lived and consistent in every detail). Of course we must always consider the final product – the dancer (not the dress).

And last but not least, there is always a winner – an almost “non design”, kind of  a “Zen design”.

Which one do you think it was this year?

I did not want to mention any names, but I think the lady (and the designer) deserves it and I will bring it out, especially because it made such a difference from what I saw in previous years.

It is Melia, with the black dress she wore before the final round.

It went beautifully with her character and slightly over dramatic style of dancing (authentic and aesthetic, even artistic).

For the first time I was actually able to see the beautiful shape and movement of her body (aesthetic, consistent in detail and unobtrusive).

The back of the dress interestingly stoned, with the drape falling low down on her back side (innovative for her – though not really).

The dress will definitely stay in my memory, because she was wearing it – I could actually really see her interesting face and character.

And here is where this moment of synergy of “non design” happened: It just had to be this way!

Although, I am sorry to say, that it was quite a disappointments when she wore same style and color of a dress for the finals, only with patterns of stones in front as well – it kind of washed out her face, body shape and character (too obtrusive – only a change of  basic color would do).

I would guess that readers of this article might have other “winners”, but if you follow the points of good design, they will bring you in the vicinity of this choice. Of course, there is always a question of personal tastes, but no matter what, good design stays good design.

Sasha Pust

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