This is what designers can do.

With new disciplines and capabilities, design does more than it ever did before. Hint: it’s about human lives now. Not stuff.

In design today, experiences trump things. Photo from Unsplash

I am a designer. This job title is one of my favorite things about me. It’s also the reason I can’t get through a networking event without cringing. Every time I say I’m a designer, the first follow-up question is a truncated and outdated list of job titles. “Do you do fashion, interior, graphic or web design?” None of that.

Their response is evidence of an entrenched concept of design that assumes it only deals with the creation of tangible and visible outcomes. From this perspective, design always manifests itself as an object, piece of clothing or space.

“What is design when you take away the pixels, the object, the fabric or paper it is carried on?”

Design has made big strides over the last few decades. It led businesses like Apple, Target, and Starbucks to success. It became a staple topic of business press from HBR to Fast Company. The world now knows that design is an important ingredient in building compelling products, services, and companies. And yet, the world still believes design deals with making things beautiful, or just making things. With a bit of background knowledge, they might also give design credit for usability quoting “form follows function.” But still the misconception prevails that we make tangible, visible stuff.

This misconception becomes a problem when I try to explain what I do. I design services, business models, strategies, and experiences. That means I use design to make situations and experiences better. Although I do make nice, tangible things (like pottery, knitting, and food), I don’t do it professionally. For them, I’m a designer without a discipline.

Design without a discipline

What is design when you take away the pixels, the object, the fabric or paper it is carried on?

Ages ago, Herbert Simon defined design as devising “courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” (Simon, 1996, p. 111) At first, this definition appears too broad. Designers could be development workers, self-help writers, maybe social workers or counselors. Designers have embraced this definition, though. Simon captured an aspirational spirit that pervades the profession: designers want to make things better.

Designers work to decide how things should be. Those things can be tangible, intangible or somewhere in between. And their aim is to make those things valuable through their decisions.

What design does

Making valuable things includes three tasks:

  • Understand what people value,
  • Devise a mechanism to deliver the value,
  • Make sure the mechanism is efficient.

In practice, these activities blur into each other and don’t occur in any linear or systematic way in the design process. They do, however, give structure to the kinds of activities designers undertake, and are a good way to understand all of the new disciplines of design that have emerged in the last decade.

Designers learn what people value.

Designers spend a lot of time thinking about what the world is lacking and envisioning how a better future would look. Their goal is to create something that is valuable for users. Value is a fluid quality. Each person interprets it differently, so it changes from person to person across households, cultures, businesses and countries.

All designers use empathy to understand what is valuable and define the needs they are trying to fulfill. Something like philosophers, anthropologists, or psychologists, designers try to understand the human condition and figure out what will make peoples’ lives better.

In practice, every designer intuits what people need, or dedicates portions of their project to investigating and researching the issue. Best practices suggest that designers should be getting user feedback throughout their design process.

Design researchers are good at figuring out how people behave in and feel about different situations. They use observation and interaction with users to understand their needs and motivators.

They develop the mechanism to deliver that value.

With a vision of what value to create, designers then try to figure out how to make that idea a reality through some kind of value-creating mechanism.

The known design professions focus on this task: fashion, jewelry, interior, graphic and product design. Each aims to create things they believe will be valuable. Fashion designers try to engender positive feelings. Interior designers seek to shape behaviors and the way people inhabit a space. Product designers develop functional tools and incorporate aesthetics to satisfy certain emotional needs.

Many newer, less-known job titles fall into this category as well: service designers, social innovators, experience designers, interaction designers, and business designers all develop value-creating mechanisms that aren’t the design products that typically spring to mind.

Service designers work on improving and creating service offerings like banking, healthcare, and tourism. Instead of creating physical products, they intervene in the way that different actors and objects work together to deliver what people need.

Similarly, experience designers orchestrate how users experience businesses and situations. They design many different pieces — such as websites, digital interfaces, service environments and products — to coordinate the overall experience.

In the digital world, user experience designers, interaction designers and user interface designers focus on making different parts of digital products.

Social innovators work on a broader scope trying to create societal value instead of commercial value. They develop products, services and even organizations that aim to remedy social ills.

Businesses are our society’s most common value-creating mechanisms. Business designers build startups and shape parts of existing enterprises to create more value.

And they make sure that’s the most efficient way.

Designers have to think about efficiency, to make sure their ideas can have the impact they envisioned.

Usually, there are multiple ways to create the same value. For example, you can wash your clothes at home, send them to a cleaner or go to a Laundromat. Users choose the option that is the most efficient use of their money, time, energy or skills.

Efficiency is always woven into designers’ considerations and the design process. Manufacturing designers, technologists and human-factors specialists (sometimes also business designers) contribute their respective technical expertise in design teams, to validating and implementing their ideas.

Beyond this, design strategists manage the design process for efficiency. They help companies decide what to make and do, then choose and deploy the right design skills for the job. A company trying to create a wearable might employ service designers, experience designers, and product designers at different times during the development process. The strategist defines the mix and overall direction of the offering to make sure it is the most efficient solution (process).

So, please stop asking what kind of stuff I design.

Design does much more that make pretty things. And designers don’t make things for the sake of making things. We create human-centered value. Designing sweaters, apps, or motorcycles is our way of improving the human experience by improving bits and pieces of it. The new disciplines and capabilities of design outlined here mean that design can have a much broader influence on your offering, business or startup than you ever thought before.

“Design does much more that make pretty things. And designers don’t make things for the sake of making things. We create human-centered value.”

So, it’s time to stop talking about the discipline in an aesthetics- and thing-oriented way, and start the discussion about design’s broader potential to create value by solving human problems. Next time you encounter a designer at a networking event, your first question should simply be: What kind of problems do you work on? What value do you create? They’ll expand.


References

Simon, H. A. (1996). The sciences of the artificial (3rd ed.): Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, c1996.

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