Being a Designer, I’m always looking to better define & redefine what I do. I continuously return to the root of the matter in a search for greater meaning. When asked to describe what “Design” is, people inevitably respond in completely different ways. This is so, because the subject is so vast and can be understood from so many different perspectives depending on ones experience, education, profession and so forth. Do a quick google search asking the question What is Design, and you’ll see what I’m on about.
This article was written on my personal blog way back in 2007, yes the basis for this discussion still exists due to the vast array of design related fields which have spring from the digital revolution.
For a deeper insight into how the argument applies in a more modern context this article entitled “Startups, this is how design works” provides a thorough overview of design related fields, methodologies and their respective applications.
The following video will introduce you to the problem, and why we need to rethink our perception of what design is.
My Quick Definition
My own personal definition of design has changed over the years. As a junior I thought of design as a commercialized visual art form, though today I see design more as: “Taking a series of steps to arrive at a solution to a specific problem.” It’s something of a process and even though I’ve stated the aim is arriving at a solution to a specific problem, many times the design process reveals the real problem, one which is different to what was initially perceived as the problem. It’s more about process, strategy and innovation than Art, though let me not open up a can of worms on the definition of the word Art just yet.
The word Design can be used both as a Verb (to describe an act or process) and as a Noun (to describe the resultant product, object, image or solution).
A few explanations of Design
Charles Burnette in his IDeSiGN curriculum calls it, â€œâ€¦a process of creative and critical thinking that allows information and ideas to be organized, decisions to be made, situations to be improved, and knowledge to be gained.â€ – Found at Noise Between Stations
For such an important concept, the question “What is Design?” appears to yield answers with limited usefulness. Dino Dini states that the design process can be defined as “The management of constraints“. He identifies two kinds of constraint, negotiable and non-negotiable. The first step in the design process is the identification, classification and selection of constraints. The process of design then proceeds from here by manipulating design variables so as to satisfy the non-negotiable constraints and optimizing those which are negotiable. It is possible for a set of non-negotiable constraints to be in conflict resulting in a design with no solution; in this case the non-negotiable constraints must be revised. For example, take the design of a chair. A chair must support a certain weight to be useful, and this is a non-negotiable constraint. The cost of producing the chair might be another. The choice of materials and the aesthetic qualities of the chair might be negotiable. Found on wikipedia
Design is everywhere – and that’s why looking for a definition may not help you grasp what it is. Design is everywhere. It’s what drew you to the last piece of furniture you bought and it’s what made online banking possible. It’s made London taxi cabs easier to get in and out of and it made Stella McCartney’s name. It’s driving whole business cultures and making sure environments from hospitals to airports are easier to navigate. The single word ‘design’ encompasses an awful lot, and that’s why the understandable search for a single definition leads to lengthy debate to say the least. According to this Design Council PDF
This Diagram displays a multi-level explanation
Design according to Usabilitybok.org is:
- A discipline that explores the dialogue between products, people, and contexts.
- A process that defines a solution to help people achieve their goals.
- An artifact produced as the result of solution definition.
I like the definition provided by Nathan.com:
Design is a set of fields for problem-solving that uses user-centric approaches to understand user needs (as well as business, economic, environmental, social, and other requirements) to create successful solutions that solve real problems.
Design is an Evolving term
Due to the rapid increase in new disciplines, methodologies , professions, media and technology, the word design has increasingly taken on more modern meanings. It has done so as well due to the overlapping of different disciplines and the increase of multi-disciplinary fields. If we want to understand what design means in a general sense we can look at it in the following manner. Design, in its general sense as an act or process, is following a set of steps towards a goal. The steps are shaped by the desired outcome, whether it be a product, an image, a system, or merely a state, every desired outcome or goal has a set of steps leading to it.
The Design Family
To many, the word design is synonymous with the term “Graphic Design“, but the field of design includes: Industrial or product design, interaction design, web or new media design, multi-media design, broadcast design, information design, environmental design, spacial design, interior design, experience design, textile design, fashion design as well as sustainable design or design for sustainability, user centered design or use centered design and the list could go on. Many of these categories overlap or are simply named differently depending on the level of specialization, but they do share certain principles and elements, beside their name, which makes them all very much part of the same family.
Design Within the Mind
The word design has even been associated with ways of thinking, strategies, methodologies and has given birth to a new strategic skill spoken about in many forward thinking companies called “Design Thinking“. I’ve spoken a little on design thinking in a few of my posts but feel it needs a little more attention now that we’re trying to crack open the subject of design in this manner.
Design thinking according to Noise Between Stations is
- Collaborative, especially with others having different and complimentary experience, to generate better work and form agreement
- Abductive, inventing new options to find new and better solutions to new problems
- Experimental, building prototypes and posing hypotheses, testing them, and iterating this activity to find what works and what doesnâ€™t work to manage risk
- Personal, considering the unique context of each problem and the people involved
- Integrative, perceiving an entire system and its linkages
- Interpretive, devising how to frame the problem and judge the possible solutions
Design Thinking is concerned with the methodology or approach applied to the problem solving process, which means that each step taken is a thoughtful, considered one. Design thinking is open minded, multi-disciplinary and allows itself to be influenced by anything which has a meaningful contribution towards the desired goal. It is also collaborative and makes use of many minds, the more diverse the better, though the choice of which minds should be strategically considered. It’s holistic in nature, looking at things from all angles, analyzing every step and action, synthesizing and re-organising information and perspectives. It’s thorough, though only needs to be thorough enough to justify the outcome. It’s flexible and allows for change.
The iDESiGN model below is one of the more thoroughly explained and clearly understandable processes for applying design thinking which I have come across recently, and is definitely worthy of some study and experimentation.
|I stand for intendingTo intend you decide what you want or need to accomplish, focus on the circumstances involved and direct your thoughts and actions toward your goal.|
|D stands for Defining.To define you identify and describe the elements of your project and the information and resources that will be useful in reaching your goal.|
|e stands for ExploringTo explore you relate the elements you have defined, imagine possibilities regarding them that are related to your goal and analyze which is the best idea or approach to develop further.|
|S stands for SuggestingTo suggest you propose the form your solution will take or the plan of action you will follow, and present, communicate and explain it so that others will understand your objectives.|
|i stands for InnovatingTo innovate you implement your plan of action or concept, constantly improving your skill and results to produce or perform what you intended to do.|
|G stands for Goal gettingTo reach your goal, you observe, judge and measure what has been accomplished and evaluate whether your intentions have been fulfilled, revising your activities until you achieve your goals.|
|N stands for KnowingTo know, you remember and reflect on your experience to learn from it, to integrate it into what you already know and to look for future applications of the knowledge you have gained.|
They also give a detailed explanation of how to implement each step of the process.
Developed bywww.idesignthinking.com website this content is available to be used freely for education and non-commercial purposes and forms an excellent basis for any design thinking system.
How does this apply to traditional forms of design?
Design thinking allows for more meaningful and relevant decisions to be made in the course of developing any given solution. It encourages questioning, analysis and research. The prototyping aspect of design thinking inspires designers to want feedback on their designs and to meaningfully evaluate that feedback. With a proper understanding of Design Thinking the designer can approach the problem with the right mind-set and strategically shape the solution to fit as closely as possible. The questioning process is crucial which includes research and analysis of the problem. Visual Designers should be first and fore mostly thinkers, if they are to apply allow their creative abilities to adequately address and solve problems through their work.
That’s scratching the surface of what design really is. What’s your definition of Design?