The Importance of Design
It’s More Important Than We Think
Let’s get this out of the way — design does not mean Alexander McQueen’s latest jacket.
Design is a much bigger beast.
The Meaning of Design
To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit; it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatise, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse.
— Paul Rand, Author, Graphic Designer, Teacher
It may be defined as a verb, ‘to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan’. However, a more specific definition will capture how the meaning of design has evolved. To design is to plan the creation of a new product, service or system to solve a specific problem with the intention of improving human experience.
I discussed the importance of design when I wrote about technology.
History of design generally lends itself to the evolution of industrial design. You might also think of graphic design, property design or fashion design. It is traditionally seen as creating anything new that is tangible. However, you can also look into the history of designing the intangible — a customer experience (McDonalds), a technique, a service or network. Even the way information is presented has been redesigned for easier absorption (like infographics). Images that may have started out as primitive sketches and drawings have evolved to infographics and image-heavy SlideShare presentations. Code systems have been designed as a new language.
The most primitive form of non-verbal communication came in the form of pictographs, symbols that we used to communicate ideas to each other. To evolve into more abstract ideas, we developed a form of communication called the alphabet — one for every language — that allowed us to communicate ideas that could not be translated through pictographs as clearly.
Perhaps only ideas that cannot be communicated in pictures should be in writing.
It evolved into more sophisticated written language, with the development of Chancery Cursive script in 1420. Writing evolved from ancient typeforms to modern typeforms, graphic design and 3D lettering. It has been an evolution of design in writing and conveying ideas.
Understanding Types of Design
Why are we so attracted to good design? The human eye desires beauty. The theory of Human Centred Design is that we intuitively know good design because we can easily use it. Quality and transparency aside, the first designs of Apple products were designed with the human in mind. Software should also be intuitively designed. Would amateurs prefer to read an Adobe manual or just go to Canva to produce a piece of work? Products and services aren’t often created for intuitive use or human-centred design. But this has been an imperative part of successful products and services.
Why should a user need to read a manual before they can use your program? Technology should adapt to the user, not the other way around.
— Melanie Perkins, Canva
Visual, Tangible Design
Writing, once developed to communicate abstract ideas, has now evolved into letterforms. They are used to visually captivate, to persuade and inform us. It is not used to communicate an abstract idea, nor used to communicate an idea that can be translated in an image. Rather, it is used to communicate in an entirely different way, almost exclusively to captivate the eye. It is used to advertise, to beautify, for expression and experimentation. Letterforms and typography might be viewed as tangible and visual, like graphic design.
The function of graphic design is the communication of messages through the juxtaposition of words and pictures. It is the visual synthesis of thought in the form of publications, exhibitions, and posters as well as packaging, signage and digital interfaces. Design is tactile, environmental and interactive.
— Kristin Cullen
By contrast, a service process, like the drive-through at McDonald's, is intangible. You only see the physical makeup of the drive-through. But the process is what you are following, and this dictates where you drive to next — to order, pay and pickup. Design can be tangible and intangible, but you will notice good design when you see it, and you will notice it much more when it is bad design.
The main thing in our design is that we have to make things intuitively obvious. People know how to deal with a desktop intuitively. If you walk into an office, there are papers on the desk. The one on top is the most important. people know how to switch priority. Part of the reason we model our computers on metaphors like the desktop is that we can leverage this experience people already have.
— Steve Jobs
- If you see a map, how could it be better designed to accommodate human senses? Google satellite maps have helped many people navigate cities that are nothing like their hometowns.
- Can you sketch an idea with a 3D perspective?
- Can you translate a set of data into a map, a table, graph or other visual form?
The (Simple) Design Process
The design process can be applied to a number of challenges, not just in the design industry.
- First, you have a problem. You research and brainstorm answers, all the while remembering the problem. Asking questions — many difficult questions — is key to success from the start.
- You begin to mockup ‘thumbnails’ or solution s — everything is on the table.
- When you come up with solutions, you refine and adjust, and some solutions will not be as useful as you initially thought, and others will be far more valuable.
- Don’t be afraid to archive the less useful ones.
- Choose your final solution and refine it, testing it against every challenge it might come up against and ensuring it solves your initial problem (There’s a lot to be said about minimum viable products, and when exactly you should start testing, but it should be your best minimum viable remarkable product).
- Then you send it out, test it, and use feedback to refine it.
- Remember, this is not the last step. A good solution is never complete, but always being refined and improved.
Designing for the Future
As goods and services are experiencing redesign, it’s important to remember that a good design will consider the future — not just a current trend. Good design will be timeless. Consider homes from the older centuries — they are heritage listed to preserve history.
Remember: The next time you are producing a piece of information in writing or another medium, ask yourself what the easiest way might be of conveying your idea. Perhaps only ideas that cannot be communicated in pictures should be in writing.
- A Day at elBulli
- Designing With Type
- Mastering Calligraphy
- Steve Jobs
- In Progress by Jessica Hische
- Layout Workbook by Kristin Cullen
- The Maker by Tamara Maynes
You can see the full list of sources I consulted on my Trello Master’s Board.
EndNotes: This essay is part of a series in my own Masters program. I developed my own Masters because I couldn’t find the right solution to educating myself in our slow-moving and irrelevant tertiary education. I deferred a Masters of Law (Corporate and Commercial Specialty) to focus on areas that are more relevant to the conceptual age. I’ll still be learning about the law, but in a way that’s more relevant and connected to the outside world. You can follow along with my progress on Medium.
Dedication: It’s a long dedication, but I have a big family:
To Dad, thanks for teaching us the power of persistence and Dettol. To Mum, I really loved my quattro-flavoured sandwiches. I never exchanged any of my quarters with anyone. To Jeremy, thanks for being prepared with the promise of a power wedgie if anyone tried to harrass me (they never did). To Jules, thanks for introducing me to Mr Bingley’s confession: ‘I have been the most unmitigated and comprehensive ass.’ I hope to return the same value to your life some day. To Mat, thanks for sharing my love of bacon. Keep cooking until crispy. Maybe one day we won’t have to hit the fire detector with pillows. To Dora, there’s a lot more to you than soap bombs. If you’re not careful we might start randomly posting your art around Sydney. To Tim, your flatulence may be powerful, but your inheritance of Dad’s persistence is even more powerful. May the force be with you. To Luke, your passion for fact books and finger pointing will take you far. Never give up your sense of curiosity.