What is design? What does it mean to design something? What does it mean to be a designer? The last few weeks I’ve been thinking out loud about some specific design topics, but I’ve danced around the central question of what is design. I’d like to address that today.
Over the last few weeks I’ve talked about
- The subjective nature of design
- What it means to design responsively
- The role aesthetics play in design
- Simplicity as a philosophy and approach to design
- How design should start by spending as much time as possible defining the problem and identifying what’s to be designed.
There are many more topics I could talk about, but again, all this time I’ve really been dancing around the central question. What is design? What does it mean to design something?
We know design when we see it or when we do it, but that’s not much of a definition. Most definitions of design revolve around the word plan. Sometimes as a noun and sometimes as a verb.
- design (noun) — a roadmap or a strategic approach for someone to achieve a unique expectation
- design (verb) — to plan and make decisions about (something that is being built or created)
Design is found in the decisions made both before and during the process
According to definitions, design is some kind of plan. To design is to plan something. Words like purpose and intention are also frequently used in definitions. Design isn’t just a plan, but a plan with a purpose or for a specific purpose. You design to accomplish something specific.
I’m not entirely sold. I don’t disagree with the definitions, but I have a problem defining design as a plan in the sense that you can certainly create a plan without designing anything. I also think there are times we design something without much of a plan at the start.
Many designers will suggest that design is problem solving. I think all designers would agree we solve problems along the way to a finished design, but does solving a problem make one a designer?
One last definition I found while researching this post comes from an article in Fast Company, Is There A Scientific Definition Of “Design”? A pair of Canadian academics define design as follows:
DESIGN: (noun) a specification of an object, manifested by some agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to some constraints.
Sounds right and I can’t disagree with anything in there, but it’s quite a mouthful and in the end it’s really just saying design is a plan with purpose, while adding a little more detail than the other definitions.
What Does it Mean to Design Something?
I think part of the problem defining design is that there are so many different types of design. An industrial designer, a fashion designer, an architect, and a web designer, all design things, but the specifics of what they do are quite different.
There are some commonalities in these different types of design, things we all do. Planning is one. Purpose another. But I think more than anything design is about making decisions. It’s making decisions without knowing in advance if your decisions are good. It’s making decisions without a way to judge the success of any of them until after you’ve finished making all of them.
How can that be? How can we make decisions without a clear and objective way to know if we’re making the right decisions, if we’re making good decisions?
Design is about making decisions based on objective principles that may or may not apply. It’s making the most objective decision you can with an understanding that in the end those decisions are all subjective.
Design is doing everything you can to understand the essence of the thing you’re going to design; the essence of what it is and what it’s supposed to do. Design is formulating a larger strategy, and developing a concept for how you’ll proceed, knowing at the outset you won’t know if you’ve chosen a good or bad strategy until after you’re done and possibly not even then.
Regardless of being able to determine good or bad at the outset, you make a series of decisions that consider your initial vision at every step and attempt to remain unified to that initial concept.
Not only is design trying to get at the essence of the thing being designed, but it has to decide how that thing fits within larger contexts of the many other things that have been designed. It asks you to question whether the thing being designed is really what you think it is or if you should scrap all your work and start again.
Design is knowing that you could do everything right and well and that someone also designing the same object could do it well and right and end up with a different design. It’s knowing at a different point in time you also might design something in an entirely different way and still end up with a good design.
Design is multi-layered. You don’t need to design each layer, but the more you get right the better your design will be. At the bottom design is functional and reliable. Moving up the stack it becomes usable and helps people become more proficient. At the top it’s creative and offers aesthetic beauty, ideally arising out of the essence of the thing being designed, but sometimes from somewhere else with a purpose simply to delight.
There are contradictions in design. Simplicity would have us remove everything that’s non-essential and yet aesthetics are fine with us adding some less than essential things if they delight or communicate something beyond the object itself.
Designing a Website vs. Designing a Shirt
I’ve never designed a shirt or any other piece of clothing, but I imagine concerns would also include goals and objectives and the people who’ll wear the shirt. There will be technical details in regards to the fabric and a process for turning materials into a finished product. There will be choices in color and shape and general aesthetics.
A lot goes into creating a website and a lot goes into creating a shirt. The technical details vary and they vary yet again when designing an industrial product or a process to move packages from one truck to another.
There’s a craft associated with anything designed. The specifics vary from thing to thing and so the decisions made at the start and along the way will vary with them. The design of all of them can be found in the decisions made both before and during the process.
The definitions for design sound simple. Design is some kind of plan with a purpose. To design is to create this plan and then make decisions that align with the original plan. I don’t disagree with any of the definitions, but I feel they leave so much unsaid.
In design there’s an objective, some kind of task to complete or problem to solve and there will be many, many decisions made along the way. Some of those decisions will be made up front. They’ll be based on objective principles, guidelines, and experiences that start us on the design journey.
Many more decisions will be made during the journey. Design asks us to make the best decisions we can at each step of the way even if that decision is to turn around and start down the journey again from a different road.
Design can be applied to most anything. If it requires more than a single decision, more than a single step, it can be designed. A website can be designed. A shirt can be designed. An automobile can be designed. Your life can be designed.
In the end to design is to be human. It’s making the best decisions you can under any and all circumstances. To become a better designer, to become a better person, is to become better at making decisions.
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