The Irony of Design

What does “design” mean? How can one word possibly describe so many industries and still be surrounded by so much misconception. It seems to have become a word reserved for the elite thought leaders of an industry, and abused by the novices who are working on their first project. When is someone allowed to be a designer? And what does that mean anyway?

During my final semester at Colorado State University, I attended an IBM workshop on ‘design thinking’. As if the word design was not a vague enough description, these guys decided to fluff it up by adding the ever-so descriptive word: thinking. The IBM team started the workshop with a definition. They said design is intent. Designing something is simply acting on the idea to intentionally solve a problem. Their definition has played an important role in how I’ve come to realize design as a powerful tool for my life.

The great irony of design is that its own definition has become muddled and unclear. For something with the capability of bringing more clarity to the world, it has become a term full of confusion and misinterpretation. When I tell someone I design posters, logos, applications or websites it has a veil of uncertainty around it, it’s as if the word design implies I am bullshitting. When I say I build those websites and applications, the conversation tends to go in a more productive and engaging direction.

This problem is caused by the many people who use the word design without thinking about what it means. Designer became a description for anyone who can install a piece of adobe software, and we designers became people who ride on the coattails of some of the greatest thinkers of our time, simply by adding the word design to our resume. While that may seem harsh, I know I’m also guilty of such blatant piggybacking. Describing myself as a designer is the easiest way to talk about what I’m working on, even though at times I feel like an absolute fraud. Since the IBM workshop and the different projects I’ve worked on since, I have come to see design in a new light.

Personally, I try to design my life. I have designer on my resume, but my relationship with the term has evolved. I want to be intentional about my efforts and my time. I try to design how I wake up in the morning, how I brush my teeth, how I work with people, how I communicate ideas, and how I cook my dinner. This doesn’t mean I am an orderly tidy freak; on the contrary, most people would be appalled by the shape of my car and my room. It does mean that based on where I am in life; I want to move forward with intent. It’s about being honest. I have so many hills to climb and I want to pick which ones are important and worth my efforts. Hopefully I can get to all of them some day. Until then I try to be content with working on one thing at a time, and improving it through intentional thinking.

Growing as a person and as a young professional are some of the most important things in my life right now. I get excited to spend an extra 5 hours after work on apps and side hustles. That isn’t happening by accident. I’m designing it to be this way. For example, I like to go on runs around wealthy neighborhoods as a lesson to myself. The lesson is not about material wealth. It’s about personal riches. I want to teach myself that my actions today lead to results tomorrow. That’s my idea of living a designed life.

The added value that design brings to the market is amazing, but it can also be an incredible tool for our personal lives. We should not reserve the term design for marketers and those of us who see ourselves as artistically inclined. Doing something with intent should be embraced by everyone, and so should design.