So, what is design anyway?

The word design is used in so many ways that you begin to wonder if it has any useful meaning at all. All of these may be regarded as acts of design:

  • Laying out a magazine ad
  • Making an engineering plan for a suspension bridge
  • Using A/B testing to improve user response to a website
  • Plotting an elaborate trap
  • Wireframing user interactions for a mobile app
  • Creating the graphical look and feel of a mobile app
  • Planning the features of a product that solves a perceived user problem
  • Collecting user feedback on a product or service
  • Preparing architectural plans for a beautiful building
  • Preparing architectural plans for an ugly building

Since folks refer to any and all of these examples (and many more) as “design,” the term design could be regarded as just a great big basket that holds many things that have no clear relationship to one another, except for the fact that someone, somewhere calls them design.

Why do people know what an engineer is, but not what a designer is?

As a discipline, engineering is pretty clearly defined, as is engineer. Engineers do engineering, and to do engineering requires a particular degree, the passing of certain tests, and the obtaining of one or more licenses. Without these, you are not an engineer, and what you do is not really engineering (as commonly understood). Furthermore, the major types of engineering are pretty well established: mechanical, chemical, civil, and electrical, with each having pretty well-established sub-branches.

But design and designers are a different story. There are design degrees, but for most types of design, neither a degree nor a license is required. Architecture is a notable exception, which has the same kind of professional accoutrements as engineering. Urban design has some of those accoutrements.

Why anybody can have a brain…what you need is a diploma!

But other aspects of design—graphic design, industrial design, interior design, typography, and others, require no degree or license. For the newer areas of design that were spurred on by the digital age—user interaction design (“UI”), user experience design (“UX”), customer experience design (“CXD”), service design, and design thinking in general—specific degree programs are hard to find. Adding to the confusion, many prestigious institutions put art and design in the same department, sometimes making design subordinate to art.

With all of this, if you were to ask ten professional designers to define design, how many different answers do you think you would get?

So what? Does it matter if design has no commonly-understood definition?

Yes, it matters!

Even absent a common definition of design, thought leaders in the discipline of design have been developing important concepts over the last half century that are having a great impact on product development, service design, business management, and even the development of programs in the government and non-profit sectors. Arguably the most important new line of thinking is around the concept of user-centeredness, which is at the heart of the design thinking movement. I believe these ideas are beginning to bring some unity to the idea of design as a discipline, even though this emerging unity has not been formally recognized.

In order to capture and continue to advance the idea of design as a discipline, I think it is time for thought leaders in design to begin to define this discipline more clearly to provide a kind of banner for design leaders and designers at large to rally around. How this could come about, I am not at all sure. Designers being the free spirits that they tend to be, I do not think formal licensure or any such thing is the answer. But at the least, those who have a deep interest in design and a belief that its advancement will benefit society can ignite a conversation around this question of what is design.

Toward a definition of design

Well, there’s no time like the present, so let’s get started. I will—perhaps foolishly—throw something out on the table. To be clear, I am not talking about trying to come up with a new common definition of the word design. For that purpose, the dictionary does a fine job:

de·sign /dəˈzīn/…1.1. Do or plan (something) with a specific purpose or intention in mind. Oxford Dictionaries.

But the discipline of design, as it has come to be understood over the past 50 years, needs a definition that is more specific, while remaining as simple as possible. So here is my shot at it:

design (verb), as a discipline: plan the creation of a product or service with the intention of improving human experience with respect to a specified problem.

Every word of this definition can be both elaborated upon and debated, and I hope would be. Some of the key elements that I am trying to capture with this definition are:

  1. That design is a deliberate act with a pre-set intention.
  2. That design includes the intent that something actually be implemented.
  3. That the objects of design are products and services, which by implication interface with people rather than with machines or systems.
  4. That improving human experience is the general objective of design, which also makes the discipline of design inherently optimistic. This definition does not preclude — but rather includes by implication — the indirect intentions of serving business, humanitarian, or other purposes.
  5. That each instance of design effort is focused on a specified problem in human experience.

I am intentionally keeping design processes out of this attempted general definition because I believe processes should vary based on the nature of each design project.

So this is my little attempt to get some chatter going around a definition of design.


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