Design, pleased to meet you.

A crude primer on what design is, isn’t, and can be.

Disclaimer:

  1. A great deal of my perspectives about design are inspired by a long list of mentors, teachers, friends, peers and industry leaders I’ve come to admire (you can see a short list of them at the end of this post). Those folk’s philosophies are inevitably embedded in much of my own thinking of what “Design” should be.
  2. Writing about a definition for the word Design — already perfectly expressed on a seemingly weekly basis by designers far more insightful (and better writers) than I — is probably on the unnecessary side of things to write about. However, I really found this a good excuse to sort out my own thoughts on design, so what the hell. My hope is that this will provide a sort of primer on design, that I can expand on with future design-centric blog posts.
  3. Lastly — a warning: If you are a designer be prepared to be abraded with everything you’ve likely heard elsewhere. If you are not a designer, it’s possible you might enjoy this!

Save a 42 month “sabbatical from design” with the Peace Corps and a brief moment where I thought I’d become a sustainable fisheries professional, I’ve been working as a visual designer since my formal training at Ringling School of Art and Design. Though I graduated over a decade ago now, I’m guilty of cherishing a cliche worthy of an obnoxious facebook post, it goes unfortunately like this:

“We are always students — whether in the classroom or of the world.”
(place your eye-rolls here)

I’ve come to appreciate more and more that a designer’s most valuable ambition is simply to be one part “youthfully” inquisitive and the other part “youthfully” inventive — both attributes that made Tom Hanks such a great toy designer. I’m reminded on a daily basis by my 3 year old daughter that during our early, uninhibited stages in life we ask “why” at just about everything around us. As designers, especially the ones of us older than 3 years old, we should never stop asking “Why?”

A great parody, found in the first few pages of the book Glimmer, reflects this mindset quite well:

Q: “How many Designers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

A: “Does it have to be a light-bulb”?

Myths of the capital D, “Design”.

Throughout my own design career (of the visual realm), the misunderstanding I’ve frequently confronted is that design is how an icon looks, the colors selected, or what typographic style a <H1> tag adheres to. While not totally false of course, this understanding only just scratches the surface of what design is, does, and facilitates.

“People think that design is styling. Design is not style. It’s not about giving shape to the shell and not giving a damn about the guts. Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know was missing.”

- From Paola Antonelli (MoMA’s curator of Architecture & Design)
Published in
Product Design for The Web by Randy Hunt.

Yes, there is a segment of design responsible for executing such aesthetic decisions–which would fall in the order of UI Design under the class of Graphic Design (which I’ll dig into further in a future design taxonomy blog post). But if this is our collective understanding of what design “is”, we’re missing an incredible opportunity to make our “things” better by learning about (and using when appropriate) design practices beyond those which concern themselves only with superficial façade — that effort being the most subjective, trend prone, and difficult to measure of all.

What is Design?

To define such a broadly used and misunderstood word is at least a little subject to one’s own interpretation. For me (and so, so many others) trying to articulate a fair and thorough definition for design is no exception. So it’s with that recognition that I present my own understanding of design… here goes:

At the highest level, design is the collective cognitive and physical rituals of ideation which comes usually after the moment when you say to yourself (or out-loud)one of two things: “Hey, I think there should be a thing or experience here (which doesn’t yet exist).” — or — “Hey, this thing or this experience is very poor, I think it could be better”. That moment ususally proceeds with, I have an idea (or two, or three) for what this could be — or — how this could be better. At which point you (and maybe a group of you) draw up (and potentially even execute) the ways to either bring that frankenstein to life or devise a way for how that thing could be ‘better’. Design is the lightbulb, the napkin-sketch and the manifested consequence — and frequently measurement, testing/analysis and further refinement after all that. The most basic description of this process (which I’m fond of) is: Lightbulb > Research > Design > Make > Test/Validate… and repeat.

To be sure, “better” is a relative term. I’m reminded by a veteran developer at Caktus Group (where I learned to code) that this definition of design is quite broad and could apply to just about anything we do, “Who would claim that their job is to make things worse?” Well, to be sure — design CAN make things worse. Certainly, just as in evolutionary biology, not all progress is “good”. What is good design to you and I today, might not necessarily be good design to our children’s generation. After all, there was a time in history where Coal-to-electric energy was a design and technological marvel.

Design is also a verb, even a performance if you will — and just as performance art, the quality of its culminating acts are the consequence of the planning, research, experimenting, sketching, scrapping, refining rituals. For instance, to my mind, good design is not the iPhone, good design is the processes and rituals the designers, developers, engineers (heck, the entire team) took to arrive at the iPhone.

Design is NOT visual art. Visual design however is created with the intention of facilitating a curated or intended response or behavior (or the plural of either). For instance, this familiar World War I poster is not visual art, it is visual design (or communication design) because it had an intended response: which was to encourage that our (great?)grandfathers and grandmothers go sign up to fight in WWI, in mass. Graphic design can of course toe the line with illustaration, and illustration can frequently be more about interpretive expression of content (for complimenting things like an article in the New Yorker, or becoming art for a music album cover) — it’s a grey area for me, I’ll admit.

Design is NOT a role that only people with design in their title can do. Anyone can (and should be a) designer whenever they choose — and it’s likely that it happens without us necessarily calling it “design” or knowing it has taken place. “Design is basic to all human activities — the placing and patterning of any act towards a desired goal constitutes a design process.” — From Victor Papenek’s seminal 1971 “Design For the Real World”. Design is far less than a title at a company, and more about the disciplined practices and rituals in which something is created to evolve an efficiency (or a tool, communication, function, etc). If you’ve ever done “that,” then guess what…. you’ve designed. Now time for you to add this to your LinkedIn profile!

So why is design important to Us?

You wouldn’t build a house without plans right? And beyond the plans, you would want to know about the type of people who would be living in that house (is it a young family of 4 w/ a dog or a retiring couple, do they have a unique disability? etc), where that house was situated (environmentally), what types of resources are readily/locally available to build it, how will this house sustain and power itself, and how much of a budget you have to build it? As far as aesthetics go, and ‘delighting’ the people who will live there, the types of exterior and interior decor considerations will also adhere to answering those same questions. Design is important because without it, these questions aren’t necessarily raised with any cohesive intention.

In the world of designing digital products (which is much of what I do now), It’s been my experience that web application “making” are disposed of those same broad considerations. Effectively, it all comes down to the same questions familiar to traditional product designers and architects. What once were known as separate web design and development activities have now been collected into a much more holistic set of Web Product Design principles. Ideally, those people working to build digital products are becoming more disciplined in asking the whys, hows, wheres, and whos before diving into what earlier would have been a predetermined endpoint — which is not good design.

Design is important because it asks and also responds by cultivating (or guiding) deliberate paths of intent and response for users (who are people just like you! I promise this). Design is as much a guide for us as a sherpa is a guide up and down the Himalayas — yes, you can go without it, but would you want to?

So what is good design?

Well, there is always the well recited Dieter Ram’s approach to this, which I and many thousands of product designers are fond of (From his 1983 & 1984 lectures):

“Good design is (1) innovative, (2) renders utility to a product, (3) is aesthetic design, (4) makes a product easy to understand, (4) is unobtrusive, (5) is honest”

… (and many more of of his well recited classic principles which are definitely worth becoming familiar with if you’re not). Trevor Ray, a design colleague here in North Carolina, reminds me that good design and the designer’s first responsibility is to keep an empathetic view on the challenges being solved. I love that. This sentiment echoes the human-ecology centric views pronounced in Victor Papenek’s Design for The Real World,

“The only important thing about design is how it relates to people.”

And this clever contemporary twist from Frank Chimero:

“People ignore design that ignores people”.

As well, the dinner parties so well planned by my wife reminds me of the Charles Eames quote,

“The role of the designer is that of a very good, thoughtful host — whose energy goes into trying to anticipate the needs of his guests”.

As much as is said earlier about the value of being inquisitive, that curiosity is usually best fostered when you are out of your element. My own experience is that good design is further cultivated through exploring domains of knowledge far from the design world, whose communities can sometimes be a bit incestuous. While I was a Graphic Design teaching assistant at College of the Atlantic, I was especially astonished by how wildly the student’s ideas flourished because of their daily exposure to the vast domain of human ecology. Design, like any community, can easily marinate in its own juices, making much of the ideas sorta taste the same, this is not good design.

One almost fail-safe ritual of good design is the thoroughness of the details examined and executed. Not leaving a single stone unturned or unconsidered. I don’t know where I saw this but love it: “A practitioner of good design is equally far sighted and focused”. The details (in design) are infants of larger consequences — those consequences will inform our responses (either positive or negative).

And lastly, something I’ve recently become firmly beholden to: good design is investing yourself in things that truly deserve your attention — a sentiment well captured in In the Bubble: Designing for a Complex World by John Thackara. It can be a difficult act of humility since designers are at their core obsessive creators (me: guilty). But before a design process takes place, we should ask ourselves, “Does the world really need a better version of this thing or even another one of these at all?” Do we need an app that tells our friends what sort of tires our cars are using? Perhaps being a good designer, just like being a good steward of our environment, is discerning what is truly meaningful from what will just result in extra clutter.

All that said about what good design “is”… the truth is, the answer is entirely up to you. While we’re on it, we may as well discuss what good food, good film or good music “are”. There are however, two universal aspects at the core on discerning good design from the rest:

First: just like good cooking and music making, good design is good process. A good process will challenge you (as the designer) to both exhaust your questioning, as well as your “solution-ing”. Whatever the end results are, they will be “good” (or at least thorough) — because you’ve challenged yourself to be a good detective. Good design is Sherlock Holmes — or even Inspector Gadget.

Second: Intent. What are the most basic objectives that you’ve set out to remedy? Do you have in mind a particular behaviour or action you’re suggesting to your audience? Does what you’ve designed fulfill it’s intention? Yes? If so — well, you’re more than half way there and that’s good design.

“Design is Never Done”

- Josh Silverman via, a history of designers before him.

As much as it is embedded in our human condition to make tools, there is a bit of our nature to desire those tools to be more relevant for us tomorrow. Design is the constant, indiscriminate, usually well intended human and societal manipulation of our material and digital world, as well as the processes around us. Everyday, we add pages to the history book of design…

To name just a few:

  • There were printed words on paper (ala Gutenberg and Chinese Manuscripts) to express our thoughts (in mass) before Graphic Design, and now with graphic design we have things like this from Luba Lukova.
  • … And there were ways to filter your water before User-Centered design (a la IDEO read: Human-Centered Design), and now we have water filters like this from Life Straw.
  • … And we used to get around in cars and bikes, but with Service Design now we can get around in things like ZipCar, Uber and CitiBike.
  • … And there were thick printed and bound dictionaries for us to understand meanings of words like “Design”, and because of Application Design we have web applications that do this.

….

And with that — what can you make better?

__

Those people, books, blogs and lists who have been especially critical to my present sense of what design is and what it can be — maybe they’ll inspire you as much as they have me!

People:

Randy J.Hunt, VP of Design at Etsy and author of the book, Product Design for the Web. This book has served as a bible for much of my approach to web/software product design. I was able to work with Randy in two separate occasions in my career — both occasions confirmed that he’s one of the most holistic and considerate design minds I know.

Josh Silverman, Design Educator and founder of Startnership, an on-demand design accelerator for startups and people who want to learn how to better leverage design in their business, services and products.

Debbie Millan, writer of the book Brand Thinking (among others), educator at SVA, artist, brand consultant and host of the postcast show Design Matters.

John Bielenberg, founder of Project M, a design thinking workshop for young designers and co-founder of both Future.is and Common.is. I was fortunate to participate in an abbreviated workshop of his while at College of The Atlantic, which left a great impression on the power of intensive, collaborative problem solving and design thinking excersises.

Erika Hall and Mike Monteiro of Mule Studio, authors of several brilliant books from A Book Apart, who continue to challenge us to simply be stubborn in demanding good design as well as more of ourselves and our ‘craft’. Mike also gave this aw-inspiring talk on a designer’s responsibility to the world that I frequently encourage people to check out.

Jennifer Daniel, Someone who reminds us that we can’t lose our sense of humor (or humanity) while being prolific in with our creative work. Current Graphic Editor for the NYTimes, Previously at Bloomberg Newsweek

Ellen Lupton, Design Educator at MICA and author of many design books including “Thinking With Type” “Graphic Design, “The New Basics” and “Beautiful Users”

The people at The Why Not Associates, for giving me a chance to be their intern a decade ago and establishing my internal measuring stick for quality, innovation and creativity.

The folks at Frog Design, a product strategy and design firm — specifically the ones responsible for putting together DesignMind. A wonderful collection of design relationships to profound issues in society, technology, and economics.

All of my teachers at Ringling School of Art and Design. The only classes I regret were the ones I didn’t take.

Books:

In The Bubble” by John Thackara

Glimmer” by Warren Berger

Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change” by Victor Papanek

Cradle to Cradle ” Michael Braungart and William McDonough

Lists:

Bruce Mau’s — Manifesto for Growth. I’ve loved this since 2002.

Dieter Ram’s classic “Good Design Is…” list.

Blogs:

LinedandUnlined.com, Archives of Rob Giampietro

Subtraction.com, Khoi Vinh

frankchimero.com/writing, Frank Chimero

fastcodesign.com, Fast Company