What is design, anyway?

It’s an art! No, it’s a science! No, it’s… something else entirely.

Ask ten people you know to define design. Go ahead. Seriously, what’s the worst that could happen?

I know you probably won’t, but if you did you’d get ten similar responses. The typical answer boils down to this:

Design is a mixture of art and science.

I’m not surprised so many people have this idea of design. It’s not completely wrong, but it’s not the whole picture, either. To understand why design is important, we need a clearer definition.

A good definition of design should make it clear why furniture design isn’t sculpture, why product illustration isn’t modern art, and why user experience (UX) design is more than user research—despite the commonalities between them.

Because if we care about what makes design good or bad, we have to know what the hell we’re talking about when we talk about design.

Design as art?

We call some visual creators designers and others artists for the same reason we call some writers novelists and others journalists. The required skills are similar, but the roles are not the same.

A designer often needs to illustrate ideas, carefully craft color palettes, and edit photos or video. We may call these skills “artistic,” but they’re not art in themselves. On the other hand, they aren’t design either.

What separates design from art

The definition of art has always been a controversial topic, but for now, let’s pretend we all agree that art has two key features:

  • Someone creates and displays their creation as art, and
  • An audience to receive the creation as art.
If you display something you made to be art for someone else to receive as art, you’re an artist.

Doesn’t matter if you sell the art or not. Doesn’t matter if your audience is a billion people or one. Doesn’t matter if the audience loves it or hates it. It doesn’t even matter if you think your art should “make a statement” or not.

This is why design isn’t art. What’s fundamental to art is not fundamental to design. I’ve even seen design called “applied art”—which is like calling basketball “applied chess.”

Design and art are different games—with different goals, arenas, and rules. Any similarities between them are incidental, not essential.

Design as science?

Just as design often appears artistic, there are times when it appears scientific. But does that mean we should think of design as science?

For example, designers often conduct extensive research, analysis, and even prove or disprove hypotheses. Many design roles require advanced technical training. Some designers have even created their own canon to list the systems, processes, and criteria of good design—although it’s unclear if this is a more scientific or religious aspect of the design field.

Many design firms rely on dedicated research teams. I’m thinking of product designers and UX research in particular, but such a dynamic isn’t exclusive to web design.

So again, there’s clearly overlap here. Some of the skills and methods required for design are gleaned from science.

And yet science and design are fundamentally different.

What separates design from science

Science is only concerned with testing hypotheses.

The work of the scientist is to test educated guesses. They rigorously gather, organize, and decipher raw data. They try their best to ensure the accuracy of their results. So they test and test again, over and over until they’ve exhausted their ability to test.

Then they present their findings for other scientists try their hardest to prove wrong.

That’s all science is. It’s a powerfully narrow field of interest.

Scientific prestige, and scientific truth, comes from not being proven wrong. But the role of science stops at the testing of theories. Science isn’t interested in telling you what to do with the results. It doesn’t tell why you should care about the question in the first place.

Design goes further. We may rely on the scientific method to gather and analyze information, but the work of design includes every decision we make after we’ve gathered that information.

And that’s outside the scope of science.

So while designers often rely on the tools of science and art, design itself is neither science nor art.

What we talk about when we talk about design

Here’s my favorite definition:

Design is the iterative process of solving problems.

Design is about understanding a problem, planning to address it, executing on that plan, and measuring the results.

Designers make focused decisions based on good information to achieve a specific goal. Then, they test the quality of their choices and repeat the process as necessary (that’s the iterative part).

All good design—whether it’s physical, digital, spatial, or visual—results in measurable solutions to real-world problems.

What design isn’t

To be blunt, too many people think of designers as wannabe artists who sold out. That mindset doesn’t diminish the importance of good design. It only makes it harder recognize it.

How can you know when you need good design if you don’t even know what design is?

Design isn’t assessed devoid of context. Incidentally, that’s often the problem with design portfolios. They amount to little more than pretty images of meaningless user interfaces floating around, signifying nothing.

You can show the way a final design looks with a still image, but who cares? All that matters is what problem you solved and how.

Why design seems sciencey and artsy

Believe it or not, it’s a happy accident that designers pull from art and science at all.

If there were better tools to solve the problems designers face, we’d use those instead. It just so happens that the methods, skills, and media of science and art tend to be more useful for designers than those of history, philosophy, or religion.

Why does an architect need to know about furniture, HVAC, electrical systems, and concrete ratings? To develop a solution to a particular problem—namely, creating a build that’s stable, functional, and pleasing to occupants.

Why do web designers need to be familiar with graphic design programs like Photoshop or Sketch? Why do they need a working knowledge of HTML, CSS, and Javascript?

Because these are some of our best tools for solving real-world problems on the web. That’s what web designers do.

Of course, we still haven’t touched on what makes web design better or worse. To do that, we still need to iron out exactly what web design can, and can’t, do.

That’s the topic for next week. Thanks for reading.


This is the first in a series of weekly blog posts I’m writing on strategy, design, and content creation for the web. Click “follow” if you don’t want to miss my next post where I’ll tackle what good web design can do.

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