Basically, There Are Three Kinds Of Design

Dennis Hambeukers
Mar 17 · 6 min read

The revolution that is fuelling the design thinking movement is the idea that design can be used for other purposes than making beautiful objects. The process, skills, and mindset that designers use to create beautiful objects can be transferred to other areas of problem-solving. Especially in the modern business context, this is proving to be quite useful. The need for a more user-centered approach and the complexity that comes from the multi-disciplinary approach this requires has propelled design to the top of the food chain of problem-solving approaches. The right-brained, holistic, iterative, visual, creative, bold ways of the designer seem to be better suited to the uncertainty, pace, and complexity of modern business challenges than the left-brained, linear, compartmentalized, verbal, standardized ways of the traditional business approach.

So far so good.

To leverage the power of the designer’s way in order to boost business problem-solving, steps have to be taken. To move from being producers to being strategic thinkers requires some evolutions in the thinking and doing of designers.


The steps in the evolution towards unleashing the strategic power of design are based on the fact that you can use design for three different things: to make, to learn and to think.

Design to make

The first type of design is design to make. This is what you could call traditional design. This is the design that produces objects based on a briefing. The goal is to create something that fulfills the requirements of the briefing, that achieves a predetermined goal. This is the most common type of design. This is where designers use their creativity and visual powers to come up with bold and beautiful solutions. This is where designers challenge the briefing because that will create more beautiful, more powerful solutions. This is where designers experiment in the visual realm to find solutions that cannot be thought up. This is where designers use their intuition to get ideas that are fresh and new.

Make things to answer a question.

Design to learn

The second type of design is design to learn. This is where you still make things, but the goal is not the object but the things one can learn from making the object. This is the area of prototyping, of making things to investigate. There are a lot of things to learn from all stakeholders and from technology. Making concrete things is a great way to communicate between different disciplines, to solicit feedback from users, to investigate technological boundaries. This is what most people will call design thinking. Prototyping, making things, visualizing is a great way to get people together on the same page, to communicate, to find new solutions. Design to learn can be done by an individual designer but is more powerful in multidisciplinary groups. Therefore design to learn can often be found in workshops. All stakeholders can be involved, make things. Design to learn is not limited to designers alone. The role of the designer changes to expert and facilitator. The designer has more experience in making so he can contribute his expert knowledge to the process and act as a facilitator to the learning process.

Make things to learn about a problem, find the question.

Design to think

In design to learn, design is still focused on products and services. It is no longer focused on the product itself but on learning about the problem. In the final evolution, design moves its focus away from the product to other areas like strategy, business models, organization design, change management etc. In design to think, design is no longer only applied to products and services. The mind-, skill- and toolset of design are applied to problems that are traditionally far away from the areas to which design is applied. Here design becomes a way to think, to analyze, to solve problems of any kind. This is where the holistic, visual, bold, creative ways in which designers see the world is the antidote to the compartmentalized, linear, specialistic world view of the economists that traditionally populate business leadership positions. This is where design comes to the rescue when the Scientific Management approach falters. This is where an organization is seen as a service that needs to be designed. This is where visualizations are made to elevate the thinking about abstract business problems to a new level. This is where the peculiar analytical skills of a designer are used to cut through complexity. This is where the holistic attitude of design is used to leverage the power of connection in systems.

Make things to think about business problems.

Combined this creates this model:

This model to think about design and the evolution thereof, this way of looking at design, shows me a couple of things:

  • Design Thinking as most people understand it today is not the end game for design.
  • To move from design-to-make to design-to-think, you need to move through design-to-learn.
  • The further design evolves, the larger the impact.
  • The move from design-to-make to design-to-learn is about leveraging the process of design.
  • The move from design-to-learn to design-to-think is about widening the scope.

I have been experimenting with the final move to design-to-think by applying design to change management. You can read about that here:


Design to think is not limited to business problems. A lot of today’s business problems involve technology. This is an area in which design to think can help as well, especially in connecting business and technology. I think that one of the reasons is why John Maeda calls his third type of design “computational design”.

The three kinds of design by John Maeda.

Make sure to check out John’s model in his seminal #designintech report presentations:

P.S. 2

Another great resource on the different types of design is the InVision study on the maturity of design. They have their own model:

P.S. 3

The Danish Design Center also has a nice model on types of design. They also have 3 levels (and a fourth that is no design):

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn or talk to my bot at :)

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

Dennis Hambeukers

Written by

Design Thinker Thinking About Design — Strategic Design Consultant @zuiderlicht.

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

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