What is Design?

When people ask me if I’m a designer, I find myself considering the situation before I answer. If I say yes, more often than not, I’m pegged as a graphic designer and filed away under Photoshop-junkie. If I say no, I’m just another run-of-the-mill business student. But what is design in the first place?

Is it graphics? A magazine layout? A WordPress theme? A cool looking product? And why does this matter? These are loaded questions, and depending on who answers them, you’ll read answers ranging from the utilitarian to the sublime.

Design is to design a design to produce a design: definition via John Haskett
via John Heskett

One thing we can all agree on, however, is that design is everywhere. The chair you’re sitting in, the phone in your pocket, the font of this text, the ad in the newspaper, the bottle your favorite drink comes in, the reason behind the iPhone’s success, and even the human body (a la evolution). These things are all designed.

What does that mean? The word itself encompasses a lot more than meets the eye. As the context changes, so do the implications, and perhaps that’s why a definition doesn’t come so easily.

Design, defined

design graphic

To a lot of people I know, design is just a fancy word for Photoshop. Slap some clipart here, move that a few pixels into the corner, change the font and call it a day – boom, you’re a designer.

"Design" - via logo-kid.com
“Design” – via logo-kid.com

To cut a long story short, let’s just say that graphic or visual design is just one type of design. Other types include product design, experience or interface design and systems design. Our world is filled with bad design, both in concept and execution. Things like the poster on the right are all too common. I won’t claim that my definition of design is something new. My thoughts on the concept are shaped by what I’ve gleaned from reading about web design, UI/UX and most recently of service design. But here it is regardless.

Design is an intentional solution. It is a transparent, simple, conducive, and innovative process that stimulates change.

In that sense, design is much more than shiny gradients and glossy buttons – it’s a philosophy, at the heart of which lies the belief that every system can be intentionally improved. Let’s break it down.

Intentional. The balance here is between an object’s visual form and its function. Design implies a deliberate effort to make something that not only looks good, but performs its function well. That button is there because someone put it there after some (or a lot of) thought concerning not just its aesthetic impact  on the whole but also its utility.

Solves a problem. Whether its to sell a new product with a magazine ad or to figure out how to battle HIV/AIDS with a better condom, design serves a purpose. Every man-made object is crafted with intent and consideration of its user, usage, and objective. Ultimately, that objective is to solve a problem, to make something in the user’s life easier. And design can do it, whether that “problem” is functional, psychological or emotional.

This deliberate intention is also the biggest difference between art and design. Designers are constrained by the commercial environments they operate in, forced to challenge their creations with questions of relevance, efficacy and usefulness. “Before a design can “Wow” us, it must work as intended,” writes Steven Bradley on applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to the design process.

Transparent. It’s not flashy or obtrusive, it doesn’t “pop” out at the user – it simply exists, fading into the background and at its best, goes unnoticed simply because it presents the user with the most logical, intuitive way of solving the problem at hand. When a user is frustrated by the color of text on a website or the placement of buttons on a phone, its design has failed. This extends to systems as well. Scott Dadich writes for Wired (emphasis added):

“When a social network automatically checks us into a location, or cashiers can suggest new products based on our purchase history, or our connected TV calls up our favorite shows when we walk into the living room, it may seem like magic. But these are carefully designed experiences. They just follow [Dieter] Rams’ dictum—they appear invisible.”

Innovation. This comes from challenging the assumptions we come to hold true about our lives and the things around us. A designer is not content with the status-quo. Look at the iPhone, or even the iPod for that matter, impeccably designed experiences both in hardware and software – certainly not the first in their categories, but successful because they broke the paradigms of existing interfaces. The click-wheel, or the pinch-to-zoom touchscreen gesture are novel ways of handling long lists of information and media, but of course they’re so well-designed (intuitive, natural) that they instantly make sense.

Conducive to change. When you combine all these effects, you get a very powerful tool that has the power to shape human thought and behaviour. Organizations are designing workplaces to improve happiness and productivity. Non-profits and consultancies like IDEO are applying design-thinking to improve their offerings. Good design can influence behavior, and you might even say it can change the world.

Ingrid Fetell sums it up nicely; she writes, “Design can help by making it easier to live up to our aspirations: by making stairs a more accessible and enticing option than escalators, for example, or creating open spaces where people want to gather instead of being trapped in their cubicles. By shaping the objects, interactions, and environments we live around and within, design literally changes the world.”

The design-thinking mind


So who is a designer? Someone who designs, of course, keeping in mind everything we’ve touched on above. However, following this process is not enough. Something else that comes hand-in-hand with being a designer is creative craftsmanship and a pursuit of perfection. When you think, you must do and you must do well. It’s not enough to apply the jargon.

Dieter Rams, in his 10 principles of good design, said good design is thorough down to the last detailsAs designers, we’re never really satisfied, least of all with our own work. Morgan Knutson calls it “discontented observationalism.” When you learn to think in this way, you’re constantly analysing every object and process around you for its “goodness” of design. I’m struck by the typography in ads, the layout of a supermarkets or college campus, the procedures in a business process. These are business decisions, surely, but they have a great amount of influence over user experience, and by extension over their users’ happiness and well-being.

In the past, design was an afterthought and so was limited to visuals; the lipstick on the pig, as it were. But it can be so much more, as I have hopefully shown here. Design has enlarged out of the limits of visuals and into system and process design, where business skills and design skills converge. It can be the difference between a great idea and a great idea that sells well.

It’s getting harder and harder to differentiate based on tech talent alone. Designers like Jonathan Ive at Apple, Joe Gebbia at Airbnb, and the rockstar design team at Dropbox (just to name a few) are changing the world today – not entirely because Apple, Airbnb, or Dropbox have better tech, but because they make their products more usable, aesthetic, and human.

– Wells Riley, Startups, This Is How Design Works

So am I a designer? I believe so. Are you?