Why we need to rethink our design disciplines

Niharika Hariharan
Jul 12 · 5 min read

You might have encountered a range of designers and design disciplines in your day-to-day professional life; a quick search on LinkedIn will also reveal the variety of design disciplines within which we shape our practice today — UX design, UI design, Visual design, Customer Experience design, Service design, Business design, Customer Journey design, Concept design, Design Thinking etc. The list is endless.

There are so many designers in the industry today with a range of job titles, tool kits and backgrounds; its becoming harder and harder to understand what they do, how are they different from each other and what distinct value they bring to the creative process. Confusion is expected.

If you step back and look at the design practice as a whole, the more established and craft based disciplines are clearly differentiated; Fashion design, Textile design, Industrial design etc. They have their own method, techniques, tools, skills and outputs. There are sub sets within some; for example within Fashion design a technical designer specialises in the construction or engineering of a garment while a creative director is responsible for conceptualising the outfit. Both need to understand materials, form, function and construction, but work on different aspects of the same outfit or collection.

However in the strategic world of design, we have created a large number of design disciplines or practices driven by the needs of the industry at that given point in time without really investing the effort and critical thinking into what they mean and require.

I personally see this as a huge problem with grave consequences to the value and impact design can have in the business world in the near future.

Lack of distinct definition across disciplines

Consider this as an example: what is the difference between the practice of Business design and Service design? A pioneering SF based, global design consultancy states that Business designers primarily help frame the problem and facilitate discussions, however one can argue that all designers (business or otherwise) spend time framing the problem. Another UK based design studio writes Business design applies design thinking to business problems. However one can argue that Service design or Customer Experience design is also addressing business problems, applying design thinking; a human centred approach to solutions. Other definitions to distinguish include that Business designers frame problems and focus on viability, feasibility and desirability- but so must a Service designer, a Product designer and a UX designer.

While we can create subtle distinctions by definition, in practice they all merge into sameness.

Overlapping process and tool kits

You are probably aware that there are a large number of design process models that exist in the industry today — the double diamond, infinity model, circular design model etc. Regardless of the discipline, they largely profess the same approach to design led problem solving.

Different disciplines have little distinction in their process and framework

There is also very little distinction between tool kits across each of the practices. Across Business, Service, CX and UX you will find designers employing largely the same tool kit and approach.

With a lack of distinct tools and approaches across these disciplines the theoretical definitions of what differentiates a Service designer, Business designer, CX designer is merely just theory.

In practice what we land up getting are multiple labels and job titles with a vague definition of the distinct value each of these design disciplines bring to the process of creative problem solving.

This makes it hard to understand what type of designer should be employed for each phase of a project - who is best suited for the job?

Similar outputs and outcomes leading to reduced impact

Lack of differentiation and tool kits often means that these disciplines struggle to produce a distinct point of view and outputs. For example: Customer journey maps are created by Service designers, UX designers and Business designers. While I don’t think there is anything wrong with this; in-fact shared tools are immensely valuable — my point is to emphasise that if each discipline is approaching problem solving by bringing its own expertise be it service led thinking, business mind-set etc then the outputs should also be reflective of that.

Interaction design however does have a distinct tool kit and output which warrants its place in the end-to-end design process. We can clearly define the role, skill sets, tools an interaction designer uses and distinguish that from that of a Service designer, Business designer or a Design researcher. With a focus on craft and thinking i.e. thinking by doing’, Interaction designers have a clear value proposition and offering.

A varied set of qualifications and definition of good

As strategic design is growing and evolving in the industry today, we are starting to define what qualifies as each of these disciplines. I have worked with designers who went through the rigour of working in the industry as well as the grind of a business school - the combination of a designer who can craft, use design and business methods is fundamentally different from another who has a management and business background, but no hands on experience or understanding of the ‘doing’ in design.

This stands true across all disciplines - a designer who designs interfaces versus a developer who has shifted to designing interfaces also leads to different quality of outputs. Same stands true for the opposite. Bearing in mind these are generalisations as there are always exceptions to the rule; we don’t have industry standards of what qualifies as a good Business designer, Service designer, Customer experience designer etc etc. These qualifications like the above two points have a negative impact on the output of the design work produced and leads to what the industry has started to rapidly create — a cult of amateurs.

As we start splitting design into multiple sub disciplines, we break down the end- to-end process into smaller phases where each of these disciplines come into play. By creating a design process that has handovers across multiple design teams we start to solve problems in siloes.

An example of an industry typical product/service based project and the role of various design disciplines in the end-to- end process

There is real power in a designer being able to take a problem from the very start of the process and see it all the way through to adoption. Design is the ability of thinking by doing - we lose this ability in the process of creating multiple poorly defined sub divisions that are dictated by frameworks and processes.

Our industry and design practice as a whole needs to consider three key changes if it wants design and designers to remain relevant and effective

  • Reduce the number of micro- disciplines within design and create distinction between each with validated took kits, methods and outputs
  • Define what good looks like for each of these discipline and for its practitioners.
  • Focus on developing end-to-end designers- those who can frame problems effectively and have gone through the rigour of crafting solutions to know what the end output will look like. Much like a head chef at a restaurant who understands how to run, budget manage a kitchen but equally continues to have the mastery over culinary skills to guide the team to deliver on what good looks like.

Niharika Hariharan

Written by

Associate Partner, Design , London.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade