What the _______ is design?

Over the last year I’ve presented in front of hundreds of prospective marketing students, trying to explain my course and — with much more difficulty — what the ____ ‘Design’ is. For these 17 year olds and most of their parents, the word ‘Design’ evokes thoughts of posters, products and pixel pushing hipsters in beanbag filled office spaces.

I’ll concede now, when I was their age and I was applying for my university design course, I didn’t really understand what ‘Design’ was either; I thought I did, but I didn’t. Now, however, two years into my course — and after having to answer this question hundreds of times — I feel like I have a slight idea. It’s my thoughts on trying to define ‘Design’ that I would like to share with you in this post, in a (hopefully) easily digestible way.

An old adage I like to throw around is, “If you were to ask 10 people what design is, you would get 11 different answers”. Honestly, if you were to ask 10 designers what design is, you’ll probably get 50 different answers. So, why? Why is there no agreement on what designers do, what designers are, what designers are about, or what methods designers use?

In simple terms, it’s because ‘Design’ is a humpty-dumpty word, which people tend to use to mean exactly what they want it to mean; leading to it being diluted and devalued in it’s meaning. In most cases, the term ‘Design’ ultimately gets defined according to its context.

In ‘A Fine Line’, Hartmut Esslinger (founder of ‘frog design inc.’) corrals modern product designers into four — very broad — schools (stick with me, this does have a point):

  1. “Classic Designers” — These are logical and visceral beings, who primarily address the goal of making products more enjoyable, usable and safe. Real world example being Jonathon Ive.
  2. “Artistic Designers” — Visceral beings who generate individualistic artistic statements and make designs with spectacular visual appeal that often draw the popular media’s attention for their inspirational value, but rarely have consideration for scalability or feasibility.
  3. “Anonymous In-House Corporate Designers” — Often reporting to marketing or engineering managers, these guys have minimal understanding of design potential. Example end product: The Zune.
  4. “Holistic Designers” — Highly creative and strategic, fluent in convergent technology, as well as social and ecological needs and business processes. An example of this school would be a business such as frog design inc., who aim to create products that are inspirational in usefulness, beauty, responsibility and business strategy.

You could easily add to this list with more categories, disciplines and approaches; expanding beyond product design, to include designers of places, systems and services, but hopefully you get the point… even with a shared job title, when someone simply calls themselves a “designer”, it doesn’t give any firm indication of who they are, what they do, their intent, or their purpose. All they seem to share is the act of making; the rendering of design intent into something tangible — a deliverable outcome . But engineers do that too — we all do. We all have the capacity to make things and render intent



Designers, no matter what their discipline, share something very important — and this is a key point that aspiring designers should aim to understand…

“Design is not a narrow application of formal skills, it is a way of thinking.” — Chris Pullman

It is because of this attribute of design that communicating my degree to prospective students is such a tough task, often handled with fluffy and ambiguous answers. ‘Design’, rather than being a stand-alone academic discipline, is a new way of thinking. It’s an interdisciplinary approach concerned with the aggressive solving of complex problems.

This isn’t new, nor is it revolutionary. Design as a practice has always been primarily concerned with the solving of problems, which in the 20th century was primarily centred around industrial competitiveness — therefore, graphic, product and industrial design came of age. But now, design is also concerned with the solving of ‘wicked’ social and economic problems — which by nature are complex and protracted. Fluidity, constant evolution and the re-imagination of its own conditions of possibility characterise design; which is what makes it damn near impossible to define.

“Frankly, one of the great strengths of design is that we have not settled on a single definition. Fields in which definition is now a settled matter tend to be lethargic, dying, or dead fields, where inquiry no longer provides challenges to what is accepted as truth.” — Richard Buchanan

Just as industrial and communication design disciplines came of age in the 20th century, we are now seeing the same universal recognition of value for design thinking. Within business circles, this term “design thinking” is bandied around a lot, often interchangeably with topics such as innovation, startup culture and user-centredness. Design thinking is understood and accepted as a way to add value and widely recognised as an engine of innovation in products, services and business processes — a coalescence of approaches that creatively couple technical possibilities and market needs; creating holistic stakeholder value. With this industry recognition, design studies have emerged as a valuable agent of the knowledge based economy — a liberal art of technological culture.

“Because design has historically been equated with aesthetics and craft, designers have been celebrated as artistic savants. But a design-centric culture transcends design as a role, imparting a set of principles to all people who help bring ideas to life.” — Jon Kolko



The tools, mindset and process of design practitioners can be most simply explained in four steps; research user needs, visualise solutions, prototype and improve — discover, define, develop and deliver — with empathy always being at its core. The design process is about people, it’s about thinking differently, thinking beyond, transforming and it’s about growth. Design thinking is about identifying and understanding human needs and creating new solutions to solve personal, social, and business challenges in creative new ways.

From empathetic research and deep human insights, through high-powered ideation and endless iteration, designers scavenge methods and techniques from a range of fields in the endeavour of finding and rendering the best possible solution.

Design isn’t about making things pretty; design is the deliberate and never-ending task of making things better. Through Design’s cognitive abilities related to the aesthetic, moral, ethical and social human experience — applied purposefully within specific constraints — it drives human-centred innovation. Design has shifted, from a two-dimensional perspective, which focuses on aesthetics and economism, towards a three-dimensional approach that also embraces broader themes of social relevance.

Design is not just a skill, it is creative leadership.

Now, if I’m honest, a lot of this is just lip service — the loquacious verbal stylings of of a callow undergrad student — and it barely scratches the surface of this extremely broad and exciting field. Nonetheless, hopefully it has given you a bit of an idea of just what the ____ ‘Design’ is, why it matters and why it’s a great thing to study.


If you’re sold on design or want to learn more, I recommend checking out any of these books:

  • ‘Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation’ by Tim Brown
  • ‘The Art of Innovation’ by Tom Kelley
  • ‘Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All’ by Tom Kelley and David Kelley
  • ‘The Design of Everyday Things’ by Don Norman
  • ‘A Fine Line: How Design Strategies Are Shaping the Future of Business’ by Hartmut Esslinger
  • ‘Exposing the Magic of Design’ by Jon Kolko
  • ‘Design is a Job’ by Mike Monteiro
  • ‘The Idea of Design’ by Victor Margolin and Richard Buchanan


Alex File is a Marketing and Design student at Lancaster University. You can follow him on Twitter @lexanderfile, connect on LinkedIn or visit his blog, Design/Snip, for more articles, essays and ramblings.


This article was originally posted here.