A extremely quick and rough attempt to explain design and designers to people from other disciplines… V0.2

Tom Coates
Jan 21, 2015 · 7 min read

Warning: This is rough as a bucket of spanners, but I’m trying to summarize a whole bunch of stuff quickly. Feedback is appreciated. Work in progress etc.

Watching someone collide with some of the various ways that designers tend to describe themselves and how their job titles have shifted and changed over time, I tried to write up a quick summary of how I understand design practice, particularly focused on people working with products that have digital components. I’d love to get any feedback or thoughts that any of you might have — feel free to add a comment on the side or query stuff, and at some point in the future I may attempt to write it up in a more coherent form.

A particular problem I’ve noticed is an absolute brain fart that I’ve sometimes had from people who can’t get past that designers are fundamentally about making things ‘pretty’.

Well for a start — yes we are. A huge part of design is working out how to communicate a product, sell a product, make the experience of using a product evocative, emotionally enriching and pleasant. But there are other skills that are lumped under ‘design’ as a discipline and any individual designer you meet will have strengths in one area or another to a greater or lesser degree.

This piece is just an attempt to summarize some of the things that people who operate under the title of ‘designer’ might focus on, or be good at. Some designers are very flexible across the spectrum, others focus in on one area or another and are deeper in that one as a result.

At a first approximation in a primarily digital environment these are the kinds of things that designers are focused on:

Look & Feel / Visual design:

Does it look and feel appealing / professional etc? Do you have an appropriate emotional reaction to the thing that makes you want to use it more?

Communication design (in the context of internet products):

Does a user know what the thing you’re making is for? Can they tell what kind of thing it is from looking at it? Does it reveal how it’s supposed to fit into your life? Is the language used clear and unambiguous?

Interaction Design (and a bit of information architecture):

Can you tell how to use it, does it make sense? Does it work like you expect it to? Does it make it easier to do complicated things? Do you get a sense of how everything fits together? Would you know where to find a particular feature you wanted?

Experience Design, Audience Research & Invention:

What are the moments in the lifecycle of the thing that you’re making that are opportunities for it to explain itself or communicate with users? Does an existing product match with the needs you have in your actual life? Do users have needs that are unmet by existing products and services that you could meet with a new idea. Is there a way to communicate an idea or a concept that reveals something about the world through an object or a project.


This is a bit of an arbitrary arrangement roughly arranged to go from details of execution through to the concept —or from the concrete to the abstract.

In this arc, the ones nearer the top are focused less on the guts of the project and more about improving and enhancing it. The ones at the bottom are more about the very idea at the heart of the thing, that will be expressed in the crafts higher up the ‘stack’…

Generally the more clarity you have about things nearer the bottom, then the easier and more focused the thing will be as you go up the stack towards the visual layer.

It’s easy to say that the visual layer, therefore, is less important — ‘just coloring in’ — but I’d protest about that. The coloring in is the thing that people respond to first, the first thing they see, the first experience they have of your product, and something that can frame and color every experience they see with the product. Plus it’s bloody difficult and hard to do well. A designer who can make an evocative product but can’t think through the deeper issues systematically is no worse than a great structural thinker who can’t communicate their ideas well. People have strengths in different areas, and you hire to try and balance them.

I would say though that beautiful design that expresses the essence of something probably has to understand that essence, so some knowledge of what’s going on in the guts is fundamental. But that doesn’t necessarily mean those people have to be working intensively on the core idea. Sometimes they just help you refine your thoughts and digest them into a simple narrative that they can express visually.

And yes, you’ll notice lots of overlap with other disciplines, particularly ‘Marketing’ and ‘Product’. Unsurprisingly, if you’re going to build something, then you can’t just split up decisions between the disciplines. There just IS overlap between disciplines, and if there isn’t, all it really means is that design or marketing or product is taking on responsibilities that are normally (but not always necessarily) shared or split.


While these are the things that designers are there to do, there are loads of different techniques and strategies for how they can do them from card sorting to interviews to paper prototypes to personas to wild drug-fueled ecstatic dance binges, through to wireframing, mood boards and a billion other things. Quite a lot of design conferences are about the specific techniques people use in different areas of the design stack and how useful they are, ways to be faster at the process, or more thorough on the process, or how to integrate design practice and engineering or product in various effective ways. They’re also about how the various shifts in context that happen as devices become more powerful, more flexible, change shape and interaction patterns effect the practice and the techniques you’d choose to employ. etc. etc.

The titles that people use are, at some level, attempts to articulate what part of the design spectrum the person feels their strength is, or what particular design need a company has. Do you want a designer who can make your product clearer and simpler to use? Then you’re looking for an interaction designer above everything else. If you want a designer who can figure out how to make a billion dollar product fit better into people’s lives to assert your dominance in an area, then you’re looking for someone who will do interviews, research, ethnographic studies and usability testing. If you want your product to resonate a bit more with people emotionally, and for people to get a bit more of the feel of a relationship with it, then a visual or communications designer is probably where you should be starting.

One thing designers do a lot which I think confuses other disciplines is talk about what design is. I think this is mainly because almost everyone in tech products spends a bit of time doing some level of design work to a greater or lesser degree. If you build an interface for something, or a web page that connects to other web pages in a way you’re doing design work, in the same way that if you learn a bit of HTML you’re doing some software engineering. There’s a job of work for designers in continually re-explaining and re-marketing what they do that’s different from — and ideally more professional than —the work that other disciplines do in these areas. This article probably falls under that remit a bit.

After all there are engineers (mostly in tech start-ups and large engineer-led companies) who consider some of the things I’ve listed above as part of their discipline and only let the designers come in to do the work of polishing the front-end to a singular shine. On the other hand there are designers (mostly in agencies) who don’t let engineers do anything other than implement their work and wouldn’t listen to them in any area that has a connection to design. There are product people who are focused on marketing and metrics and leave all this other work completely to designers, and there are others who are much more involved, or own the product definition stuff completely and contribute to the way the design unfolds. And all of these approaches are perfectly legitimate ways to work and build things, if you’ve hired the right people for the job you want done, and if across your company you’re covering the range of skills that you need to make a product well.

A particular weakness of mine is visual design and branding. I’m far from awful at it, but I never feel like the visual layer of a product I design represents the thing I’m making as clearly and effectively as I’d like. There are people who are much, much better at that stuff than me, and I like to work with them very much indeed. The intelligence and skill a good graphic designer or brand expert can bring to a problem is a much undervalued skill in the tech industry.

My particular sense is that different disciplines lead different kinds of companies but that the best products emerge out of an interplay between business (looking for money-making opportunities), engineering (representing the space of all possible-to-make products) and design (whose focus is on translating between the code/business and members of the public).

In the end for me, design work is fundamentally focused on the form something takes and how that connects and communicates to the people who are going to use or engage with that thing. But form isn’t separate from function, or business or material science or computing or any of the other things that influence what the product or object or made thing is and how it works in its wider context and so you can and should expect a practicing designer to have some varying interest or engagement with those areas if they’re going to do their job effectively.

    Tom Coates

    Written by

    Co-founder of Thington Inc. building a new way to interact with a world of connected devices, based in SF. Previously: Brickhouse, Fire Eagle, BBC, Time Out