Photo Credit: Katie Smith

Learning the Language of Design

Why design should matter to everyone.

When one thinks of design, images of flowers, patterns, paintings etc. come to mind. These things can be categorized as “pretty things.” Why? Well these are the most obvious portrayals of “design.” Often times these portrayals of design are also what we associate with things that we, ourselves, can’t perform. So we put this abstract concept of design out of our reach on a pedestal, particularly things that are considered to be pretty. To design something well is to make it pretty.

It’s interesting that most of us can generally agree on when something is pretty and when something is not. At least we feel we can. But what does it mean to be pretty? It’s completely subjective. Now there are some underlying reasons why we as humans see things as pretty or attractive or ugly or revolting. For example, our brains like to see things in order or in patterns. Once the brain is able to determine a pattern, it no longer has to work hard to analyze what we are seeing. Patterns or visuals that make the brain work less can be considered pretty. As another example, colors can evoke emotional responses that we may not consciously notice. Restaurants are painted red or orange because those colors make you hungry. Yellow evokes feelings of happiness or joy, while blue evokes sadness, seriousness or sternness. Colors play with our subconscious without us even knowing. When we walk into a red or orange painted restaurant, we have no idea that our bodies are, in fact, reacting to the colors of the walls to make us feel even more hungry.

Pretty doesn’t have to just do with color s or patterns — the main thing that makes something pretty is the emotional response that one has to a visual stimulus. This emotional response can be somewhat predictive, as with the example of colors. When we know something about the background of the person or of a people, emotional responses can be even easier to predict. On the other hand, there are some emotional responses that cannot be predicted. For example, we’ve all seen the black and white paint splotches used by psychiatrists. Why does one person see the same image differently? So much so that certain designs can bring up painful or happy or otherwise particular memories, while another person may see it simply as a black and white nothingness. Individual experience plus natural predisposition to react to certain stimuli come together in this concept of pretty design.

So what is design? Based on popular thought it seems to be that the most immediate response would be pretty things. What defines pretty to the individual is different and based on their experiences. There are some universal experiences that apply to everyone, and some universal experiences that can apply to different groups that may also illicit somewhat similar reactions. But is this definition sufficient? While most of us could say that design results in something pretty, most would also say that it is not everything. However, we may not be able to explain further what else should be included in a definition of design.

… the term design could be regarded as just a great big basket that holds many things that have no clear relationship to one another, except for the fact that someone, somewhere calls them design. — Todd Olsen, Design Innovator

Design has an inherently positive detonation. When something is considered designed, we assume that it was designed well, that someone who was trained to understand things like color, line, shape, movement and how to put those things together to make something pretty created this something. When we want to describe something that does not fit this criteria, we use terms like it is considered “bad” or “poor” design. So, now we have this concept of bad design, being the opposite of “good design” or simply “design.” But it still has the aura, this memory or idea associated with it that someone who has been formally trained, or someone who maybe has a natural knack for design, created this something, but in this case did it poorly — maybe out of lack of experience, or oversight to audience, etc.. Regardless, we recognize it as bad, and we may even know what makes it bad.

When we feel as though we have some experience with knowing what “good” and “bad” design is, we feel that we have some underlying badge of approval to critique anything we want. We have no or limited experience in knowing what real design is and yet we all seem to believe that we know what we are talking about when it comes to what is good and bad design. So if we generally believe that design is something that we cannot do, then why do we feel as though we know how to critique design?

In the field of psychology, the Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. — Wikipedia

Ignorance leads us to believe that we actually know more than we do. We are surrounded by design, and therefore we believe we know what good design is.

We’ve discussed how design is typically associated with visual art. What people don’t realize is that design is actually in everything around us. From the houses we live in, to the streets we drive, right down to the slide presentations used in various work environments. Someone must design everything around us. A problem arises when people believe that getting something done is more important than taking the time design it properly. Everyone is doing some form of design every single day, and if we don’t learn how to do it effectively then we are all lost. It is really quite incredible that design permeates every aspect of our lives, and everyone must use it in one way or another every day, and yet people discredit or overlook it completely in most situations.

There is a triad effect of 1) the notion that we have some design ability, 2) “pretty design” is unattainable unless you are trained, and 3) we must design stuff every day. The result is that the majority of people are content with mediocre or bad design because they have accepted the fact they cannot make pretty things. What people don’t realize, and why this becomes such a huge problem, is that good designers have just learned how to communicate effectively through a different means.

Good design is effective communication, bad design is miscommunication. Miscommunication results in wasted time, wasted money, fights, arguments, disagreements, confusion, unintended insults and so on. And yet the majority of the population has consigned themselves to a life muddled with miscommunication, simply because they misunderstand what design is.

Design should be used as a tool to communicate to others clearer and in a more universal language. A simple, modern example is slide presentations. Presentations are used to convey information. I have seen time and time again, people try and make their slides pretty, which is always a mediocre job because they have already accepted the fact they cannot do a miraculous job, but they feel that they can do a decent job. What results is a distracting presentation with images and color and text that detract from the point of the presentation. The presentation is not a work of art, a successful design or even pretty because of the pictures, color or font; it is a work of art, a successful design and pretty when it communicates loud and clear the point of the presentation — which is to present information.

We need to change our collective view of what design is. Design is not making things pretty. Design is a form of communication and a tool for self expression. We need to care enough about clear communication with our coworkers, our clients and even our friends to learn how to use this tool effectively.

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