What is Design?
I dare to share my definition of Design by using just two words and to expound my theory about the elements which make Design possible.
You might notice that the best definition of design is Design itself, but conceptualization provided by language is essential in order to build the reality and to understand it. You know what to do, how to do it and why it is necessary.
Is every product designed? What is Design? And, what is not?
There are quite good definitions. There are many which I may share, but I am not completely satisfied with any of them, with their content or form. Usually, definitions are long. Boring. Abstract. And they might only be applied to a very specific field. In other words…
I have not found a well-designed definition of Design.
More than once, the definition was excellent, but, in my opinion, it did not get distinction. It was composed by words with empty meaning such as indefinite articles, pronouns, conjunctions… Although you might think that it could be an exercise in pretension and certainly not original, I would like to share a stylish definition of Design.
A good definition is one which summarizes the essence of the concept by using just a few words. This case, the essence is designing. Why it does exist. An interdisciplinary definition. Universal. With no expiration date. Everlasting. Eternal. And, for sure, obvious.
My Definition of Design
Design means... beautiful solutions
An obviousness made of just two words. Beautiful solutions. Any other word decorates what has been stated before with implicit information, therefore: unnecessary.
Why Beautiful and Solutions?
Beauty understood as contemplative satisfaction and usability (not decoration).
The target of any design is meeting NEEDS when specific SITUATIONS, for users (human, animal and vegetable) and products (space, component, contents…):
1. Among these NEEDS, designing deals with the way it works innerly and outterly.
2. When we refer to SITUATIONS, these are related to context and means: places, devices, clothes, paper, webs…
Design means Beautiful Solutions. But, why beautiful?
Beautiful (Good taste).
Although being invisible, beauty is the secret ingredient which makes the product goes further from its usability and what makes the user taste the gratifying pleasure given by the experience of using it.
Design does not exist if there is no beauty. They are shaped solutions. Usable shapes, with criteria and logic; but shaped.
We all have reached those shaped solutions after a designing process, but that was not the final result. It is like painting a picture and saying that it is Art. If Picasso did it, there is no doubt about it, but if we do it, probably, it will not be Art. I am aware of that demanding premise.
Creating something which will be used is a responsibility process which requires a great demand.
Beauty is a concept based on aesthetics which is quite subjective and cultural. There are a lot of types of beauty, depending on composition and emotions.
Some types transmit a desire to buy and status (such as Apple), other types are aseptic, anonymous, invisible and they may go unnoticed (such as Google). All of them are good and valid according to the product, usability, users and contents; but harmony and admiration are two universal elements which guide us in order to consider something beautiful.
What is harmony? Wellness and aesthetic confidence.
Harmony might be achieved thanks to the balance of proportions among the different parts of a whole. It is a universal concept. Harmony leads to transparency, balance, consistency, contrast and, in many cases, symmetry. All these concepts may be applied with some variations according to user’s culture and mind.
Harmony can be noticed visually but, on a cognitive level, it reaches us almost automatically.
It is the other universal element in order to consider something beautiful, apart from harmony, it is admiration. Admiration, on an aesthetic level, is contemplative satisfaction. Concerning design, apart from contemplative satisfaction, admiration is satisfaction of use.
If harmony just exists, with no contemplative satisfaction or satisfaction of use, the product has no design. It is a shaped solution. As it was stated before, it is a demanding premise, but that is what I think.
What is a great design? It may be noticed instantly. It is the "Woo!" when you see something beautiful. And "Woow!" means harmony and admiration (contemplative satisfaction, affordance and satisfaction of use).
Design means Beautiful solutions.
Which elements, once solutions and beauty have been analysed, make a good design possible?
Solutions are to be used. Products are thought to be used and they are designed to be easily used.
Design is interaction. People. Contents. Customization.
Interaction between product and people. Interaction among users. Interaction with contents.
How to reach a solution? Decisions.
Design is at the service of user and product. In order to reach a good design, we must give priority to three decisions that will be taken during its development:
A) Simplicity… the way it is perceived.
B) Clarity… the way it is used.
C) Efficiency… the way it has been made + the way it works + the way it is kept = the way it is.
Simplicity (The way it is perceived)
Outer simplicity helps us to understand the product and it does not produce the logical stress which appears when something new, unknown, is noticed.
Nowadays, although we are living in a society in which the more you have, the more important you are, simplicity is an outstanding value. Rococo, epaulets and tunning have damaged our conception.
How many products which are excessively ornate have taken the spent of time? And how many products whose design seems to be quite simple have been in our markets for decades, centuries? A sequined dress which can only be worn in very special occasions? A black Chanel which fits during the day and at night?
Leonardo Da Vinci said: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." It is a lovely sentence compared to the famous statement "Keep It Simple, Stupid".
Clarity (The way it is used)
What is clarity? For me, it is similar to usability. It is based on foreseeing the NEEDS with no ornaments. A visual, mental, targets and use prediction. It is related to outward appearance (visual, graphic, aesthetic design) and information design.
Clarity is functional harmony and, as it was stated before, it leads to transparency, balance, consistency and contrast. Clarity is a key ingredient in order to achieve differentiation.
For instance, an obvious case: if you are surfing the net and the text is black but links are blue, the user will be able to identify them much faster and easier. That is contrast! Differentiation!
Therefore, if there is no clarity, we will not understand and use the product appropriately. This product may be a building or a web page. If there is no clarity, solutions are not good enough. If there is no clarity, Design is not good.
How to reach clarity? Thanks to visual simplicity, by solving the main information demands since the very first moment while we are observing the different parts of the product.
Efficiency (The way it is)
If we go through Wikipedia, we can find that efficiency is the extent to which time or effort is well used for the intended task or purpose. From an economic point of view, we will be told that it is the relationship between the obtained results (profits, met targets…) and the sources that were used.
In Physics, it is the relationship between exergy and investid energy.
In my book, efficiency means, concerning products, respect. It is the love relationship between the way it has been made, the way it works and the way it must be kept. They all dance together the Blue Danube waltz. It is the sound of water in nature…
If the product itself or the material of the product (an airport, a mobile phone, a web page, a suit…) determines the visual aspect (in a bad way), it is not well-designed. If the final price has increased, if the energetic waste is high when making some non-basic parts and they do pollute too much, it is not well-designed.
If keeping the product, the web page, a suit, a public space… is too laborious, in case of users or creators, what leads to creating new models of those products, it do means that it is not well-designed.
Efficiency affects both the inner level and the outer level. It is based on creating something with regard to past in order it to work better in the present and it could put up with the coming features of future.
A web page; an example of efficiency: design the texts in order to create a web page similar to those in which the language is different. How many web pages have you seen which suffer from modifications when you change the language or when you use the Google translator? If they do not change, it is efficiency.
We have already talked about simplicity, clarity and efficiency as the three decisions that will be taken with the aim of creating a good design.
As a review, Dieter Rams told: "As little design as possible".
After having discussed about the topic, it would be quite obvious to state that designing is a lovely and tasty activity which leads to user’s happiness and pleasure.
Leaving the epicures and hedonists aside, Ethics goes further:
From the moment the user do use your product on, he is the owner. Make him or her feel like home. Create a simple design (but not poor). Do not create a product full of shapes and colours. Do not make people think but, if you do so, make him feel intelligent with a surprising solution. Yes, at times we have to surprise them. We should make them feel free on visual design, on contents, on space (not like in the crowded cabin scene by The Marx Brothers). The famous white space on web design.
Confidence. Make him feel powerful. Fashion knows how to do it perfectly. How many times have you worn some trousers or a sweater and you have felt more beautiful, intelligent, confident?
The experience of joy when using a product makes a person feel higher. It will make you earn money.
As a summary, how to get that feeling of freedom? By knowing the users and their needs. We must be honest. But, how to be honest?
Concerning design, what is honesty? What do we ask when we want a mobile phone, a web page, an airport…? We want them to work appropriately and to solve the information demands by the user. We want them not to make us waste money. A product without a planned obsolescence, easy and cheap to keep. Resistant. It is even letting the user customize the contents thanks to the elements that were mentioned before: beauty, simplicity, clarity, efficiency…
Honesty also means that the product does not change suddenly not to be recognized. That case, the process can be carried out progressively. Designing a web page and designing a blog is not the same. Known products with a lot of users change surreptitiously. Gradually.
Honesty is what we have already talked about and… social responsibility. The ethics of progress.
Which was the very first design in History? A stone to hunt? A bonfire? A torch? Designing means knowing. It means progress. Knowledge. Economic and social development. It is the key factor in order to reach equality, justice, solidarity, accessibility… If Design did not exist, we would live in the Stone Age. Does the Patent Register help or hinder innovation? Is it a break to wealth?
It is a quite important discuss that will take long, but let us talk about another controversial topic.
Is design Art? Yes, undoubtedly. A horrible picture is art, but horrible. A great design is art, brilliant art. It is…
I reached three conclusions after studying those three aspects which are shared by both activities:
1. Artists and designers not always create masterpieces. Bad design is all around us in our daily life but it has not affected to what we all know as actual Art.
2. Design is not decoration. Decoration does not lead the product to work appropriately or the user experience. Design does.
3. Both disciplines are subjective. Art is experience. The most important aspect in design is function. A visual design generates emotions (Google and the use satisfaction). Yes, the great design is Art.
Why is it Art? Designers create new realities as artists do, but they improve and transform them thanks to the interaction with users. As we have already observed, what is designed is used.
Therefore, if Design generates subjective and evocative experiences, apart from making our lives easier, we may define it as an upper Art. Is it a too bold statement? :)
From a creative point of view, which is the difference between architecture and the creation of a mobile phone? The target is the same; we all want them to work. The difference is that History stated seven arts and architecture is one of them.
In my book, architecture would not be an art on its own. It would belong to design and we would keep on having seven arts: music, painting, literature, dance, sculpture, DESIGN and film.
If we compare them, Design is the actual art concerning materials, shapes, intentions, expenses…
But, let us back to the beginning. Dieter Rams, Jonathan Ive, Zinedine Zidane… aren’t they artists? Isn’t Zidane an artist for being a footballer?
A designer is a person who creates beautiful solutions, who generates collective profits, I mean for other users, although people do not consider it.
Which is the best example of design as Art? The use of symmetry and geometry by Renaissance painters. The divine proportion. The Vitruvian Man…
And last, but not least. Design means results.
☺Satisfaction = Profitability $
Art is quite subjective (you may like it or not). From that moment on, the market creates a demand and it fixes the price of the piece. Design, apart from being an art, can be measured clearly. It is subjective, but some results are measurable: number of users, sales…
In short, these are numbers which are not quite subjective, as it happens in other arts.
Does the lack of emotion in maths break the charm of art? Do not lie to ourselves. It is not the enemy of creativity or inspiration.On the contrary, it provides diffusion, attractiveness… Value.
Which is the role of design when we have to buy and decide? We all agree that if the price is appropriate, design is more important: sales, credibility, reputation…
When disruptive moments, Design became prestigious. It is a decisive economic factor.
In History, the high class did not think that design was an art like painting, music or architecture are, because it was a millenary activity based on small objects. This consideration has changed, mainly, thanks to the challenges met by designers in the twentieth century.
CEOs must be designers. Enterprises whose CEOs are really aware of what design is are much more innovative than those which have just better managers. The clearest example is Steve Jobs.
Think of design. Create beautiful solutions. Our children’s world will be better.
This article was originally published in Spanish.