Lesson 1 — Design is not Art
It’s very likely you’ve misunderstood what design is all this time.
When I ask people who show a lot of enthusiasm for design “well, why don’t you become a designer?”, the most common response I receive is “I won’t be any good at it, I can barely draw”. With the field more popularly associated with graphic design or fashion design or even product design, a misconception has been created that designing is an art.
The reason that I say this isn’t true is that art, by definition, does not have limitations. An artist is encouraged to be imaginative and not be restricted. Design, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. Every form of design enforces certain constraints on the designer.
The most basic constraint is the medium — fashion designers are constrained by material, which in turn is constrained by seasons and other factors. Typeface designers need to factor in whether the type is meant for a book or magazine or a billboard, similarly graphic designers need to consider the size of the canvas and where it’ll be placed.
The medium this series focusses on — digital interfaces — applies an immense number of constraints on the designer, some of which are:
- Screen size (1 inch for smartwatches to 50+ inches for TVs)
- Form factor (handheld, laptops, fixed devices)
- Input options (physical keyboard, mice, touch, voice, buttons)
- Platform design guidelines
- Platform technical capabilities
When you factor in all of these constraints, you suddenly realize a designer doesn’t really have too many options to choose from when it comes to finding the right solution.
So, what is design?
I like to define design as “a science that involves solving problems creatively”¹, with the words chosen very carefully. By defining art as a science, I’m able to position design as something one can pick up through study and, most importantly, practice. You can learn to design the same way you can learn to write code or solve complex math or physics problems.
Also, defining design simply as a science makes it easier for us to realize that good design isn’t really subjective. This is not to say that different people might have different preferences, but ultimately design can be measured and the better design is the one that shows the better results.
The “problems” being solved by design vary depending upon what we’re trying to achieve, but more often than not they involve “optimizing efficiency”. For those designing digital products, this means making it easier for consumers to use your product.
The last bit of the statement — creatively — is key. The constraints that are applied on designers means those who have showcased the ability to think out of the box tend to be more natural at design. These people tend to look at the constraints, and spot certain solutions that others did not consider, or even find a way around these constraints.
If you do not consider yourself to be creative, you can still get better at design. Start by contributing to the process of other designers, if possible, particularly in domains where you might have unique perspective and are able to provide an insight that leads to the solution. The more you practice, the better you’ll get.
- Originally, I had published this post defining design as a “skill that involves solving problems creatively”. I have now changed this to science, a comparison that I’ve used in the past, such as at the 500 Startups Design Quicky event in December.
Truth is, before publishing this I felt I wasn’t providing a good enough justification to call it a science and it wouldn’t be fair to use the term “inexact science”, hence my choice of the term skill. However, I have since debated with myself and realized that I can provide a reasoning to call it a science: if crafting algorithms can be defined as a “science”, as part of Computer Science, then I believe design deserves to be called a science as well.
Why that particular comparison? It boils down to what are known as NP-hard problems in Computer Science — problems so tough, it would be close to impossible to find a perfect solution to. These problems typically occur at great scale.
Similarly, I believe design is like an NP-hard problem — it’s relatively easy to find a solution that fits everyone at a small scale, but once the userbase grows tremendously, we’re forced to make trade-offs and find the best possible solution that covers most cases, but isn’t perfect.
Looking for more Effective Design posts? The next in the series is right below.