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What is Design?

1 year ago · 9 MIN READ

Let's explore the meaning of “design,” reducing it to terms everybody understands and that everybody agrees upon.

What is Design?

Introduction

With such an enormous variety of definitions for “design” in the wild, how do we arrive at a single, universal definition? Upon which principles does such a definition converge? Are designers the same as artists?

As part of my study and career development, I have gathered a great volume of source material from different experts and professionals in the field of design. Every expert, book, blogger and even the dictionary gave completely different definitions of “design.” Yet, as I continued to collate this knowledge, some common attributes began to emerge.

Understanding “what is design?” is foundational knowledge for clients, students, creative professionals and developers working with creative professionals. I've decided to compile what I've learned and to publish this article to explain the intricate, nuanced definition of “design.”

What Is Design?

“Design is the process of creating artificial things to solve a problem within a set of constraints, which embodies the fusion of form and content.”
— Michael Hall, Designer

Design is the Process...

Design is simply a process, the purpose of which is to create something, limited only by your imagination and by other practical “constraints.” When viewed from that perspective, design becomes very easy to understand and a very powerful driver of creative innovation in business.

If design is a process, how would you describe or characterize that process? This is where things get complicated. Really complicated. In short, there are as many “processes” as there are “designers.” Each designer, be they an individual freelancer or a design outfit, goes about their business differently. Designers fashion their process using various software tools and operating procedures that are usually spelled out in their proposals and contracts. Their process can be viewed as internal to the individual designer and is generally “non-negotiable.” To interfere with the designer's process is what most designers would consider a “fireable offense.” So don't do it. This can come in the form of imposing your own “comps” (compositional layouts, or mock-ups) or bringing in another designer to help out.

Designer Mike Monteiro discussing the design process, on stage with his attorney.

Click on the image to watch just one minute of this video for now. The entire video is probably worth watching once you finish reading this article.

To reinforce the point, let's rewind to the 1990's. Steve Jobs, one of the founders of Apple Computer, had left Apple and started a new computer company called NeXT. He needed a company logo for NeXT, so he enlisted the services of legendary designer, Paul Rand. Jobs asked Rand to show him some samples. Rand refused. He told Jobs:

“I'll solve your problem for you the best way I know how, and you use it or not – that's up to you, you're the client – but, you pay me.”
— Steve Jobs, recalling the business relationship with legendary logo designer Paul Rand

Steve Jobs recalls business negotiations with legendary logo designer Paul Rand

Click on the image to watch about 1-minute, 10-seconds of this video to see the positive impact a self-assured designer can have on a tough customer like Jobs.

The moral of the design process story?

A designer may use agile, lean, waterfall or any number of development processes; but whichever process or means by which the designer accomplishes their work, those processes are internal to the designer's operation and out of band with respect to the client's whims. Designers are uniquely qualified to employ their own processes to produce the commissioned work product to solve problems. If a client could do these things, they wouldn't need designers.

So it's a process. It's a designer's process. It's that simple.

...of Creating Artificial Things...

“All artificial things are designed.... Because everything is designed, the number of areas is enormous....”i
— Don Norman, “The Design of Everyday Things”

According to Don Norman, “the field of design is relatively new, divided into many areas of specialty” covering an “enormous range” of things.ii It has at its heart one simple goal: Creating things. The enormous number of areas Don Norman talks about corresponds to the different kinds of designers, like graphic designers, industrial designers, web designers, user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) designers, and software designers.

...to Solve a Problem within a Set of Constraints...

“Design is solving a problem within a set of constraints.”
— Mike Monteiro, “Design is a Job”

According to Mike Monteiro of Mule Design, “A designer solves problems within a set of constraints.”iii

“Constraints” are limits applicable to any given design project. As Monteiro points out, this could mean designing something age-appropriate for children, building a website to handle multiple languages, or meeting a variety of other business requirements. The designer's own professional skills, imagination, budget and time are also very real constraints.

Monteiro continues: “What kind of problems? Well, that’s what determines the kind of designer you are. If you’re solving the problem of creating a chair that doesn’t hurt your ass if you sit in it for eight hours, you’re a furniture designer. If you’re sixteen and holding an empty toilet paper roll in one hand and a piece of aluminum foil in the other, you’re an industrial designer.”iv

Solutions are artificial: In other words, man-made. That's where a designer fits in: Designers use the design process to create artificial (man-made) solutions for a client's problems. It's a creative process and an art. It doesn't always have to be a graphic art; but still art in terms of an individual expression of said creativity. But, unlike art of self-expression, professional design is an art of problem-solving and meeting a business imperative. That's the overarching constraint in a nutshell.

...Which Embodies the Fusion of Form and Content.

“A work of art is realized when form and content are indistinguishable, when they are in synthesis. In other words, when they fuse. When form predominates, meaning is blunted. You know, when form overtakes and you it's like these trendy things that are going on. You don't know what is going on. But when content predominates, interest flags.”
— Paul Rand

It is greatly deliberate that I add Paul Rand's “fusion of form and content” into the definition of design because I felt it was of present importance to glue the more business-like definitions of design with the aesthetic.

For example, I often read articles or listen to broadcasts where the presenter might note the usability of a given digital product (say, a website or an app) fails even though it may be “art gallery” drop dead gorgeous to look at.

In other words, form predominated, and meaning was blunted.

On the other hand, we all use digital products daily that looks just awful, and even tolerate terrible frustrations trying to get these things to work and do what we want them to do. Still, we go there every day because it does, in fact, work.

In other words, the content predominated, and interest flagged.

Watch Paul Rand talk about aesthetics, art and the fusion of form and content.

Click on the image to watch this timeless video lecture about aesthetics, art and the fusion of form and content by the legendary designer Paul Rand.

How many digital products have you seen where a competitor comes along and applies “Rand's Law” and fused form and content beautifully, and drastically upsets the incumbent products and services? I've seen this crack monopolies by stripping hundreds of thousands of users away from established services.

Billions of dollars worth.

Don't doubt me. “Rand's Law” (okay, I just made that up, but follow along anyways) is of critical importance in design thinking, especially in the future where every business idea has been supersaturated by every UFO-shaped dog biscuit startup you can think of.

I believe that the future of design lies in its past: That this fusion of form and content has the eternal power to disrupt established, incumbent digital products and services and therefore must be included in the very definition of “design.”

Good Design

So what makes design, good design?

Monteiro points out that nobody comes to your website to see how pretty it is:

“Almost no one is coming to [your websites] because of your excellent design work, and those few that do are there to steal. People show up for the stuff. Design makes the stuff easy to find, and a pleasure to use; but it’s not the stuff.”v

“The stuff” is what Paul Rand calls “content” and continues, “Don’t try to be original. Just try to be good.”

He was actually paraphrasing Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, an architect, who says, “I don’t want to be interesting. I want to be good.”

Whether you’re talking about “original design” or “interesting architecture,” the takeaway here is that homogeneous design breeds familiarity, and that has a definite usefulness that benefits the user. In most cases, digital product design should be centered upon the person that will use that design, NOT the guy who MADE that design, and should therefore be transparent (to the user). Only once the design fails to solve its intended problem should it be looked at; and even then, an effort should be made to make it feel familiar by aligning it with known conventions as much as possible.

This helps us draw a distinction between a designer per se and a “graphic designer.” Graphic designers make “pretty,” but they don't make websites that work. As Norman's “The Design of Everyday Things” points out,

“Today, I realize that design presents a fascinating interplay of technology and psychology, that the designers must understand both.”vi

It is therefore within the expertise of the designer to make the technology behind your product (e.g., your website) play nicely with the people that use it on one hand, the technology to make it work on the other.

As Little Design as Possible

“Good design is as little design as possible.”
— Dieter Rams, “Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible”vii

The legendary industrial designer, Dieter Rams, built his entire career around this emphasis on “the stuff.”

In the cultural evolution of function over form, ornamentation and decoration became unnecessary with the rise of Protestantism during the reformation period of Germany. Dieter Rams grew up in the wake of this movement, and the design theory of 19th century Germany that says “aesthetic beauty could arise from an object being bound to a purpose”viii could plainly be seen in his design work for the German industrial giant, Braun.

In the context of industrial design, “Rand's Law” could be regarded as “the fusion of form and purpose.” That is to say, such a fusion causes the beauty of an object to draw more from its usefulness of purpose than from its physical beauty of form as its usefulness is what makes it beautiful.

Don Norman's “The Design of Everyday Things” speaks to this as well:

Design should “fulfill human needs while being understandable and usable. In the best of cases, the products should also be delightful and enjoyable.”ix

Summary

Design is a process. It's a process of creating artificial things. Good design should be as little design as possible. Design is the fusion of form and content. Thus,

Design is the process of creating artificial things to solve a problem within a set of constraints, which embodies the fusion of form and content.

Footnotes

These footnotes should give you some great resources for additional reading and learning.

iNorman, Don. 2013. The Design of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books. (p. 27)
iiNorman (p. 27)
iiiMonteiro, Mike. 2012. Design is a Job. New York: A Book Apart. (p. 7)
ivMonteiro (p. 7)
vMonteiro (p. 119)
viNorman (p. 31)
viiLovell, Sophie and Ive, Jonathan. 2011. Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible. London: Phaidon Press Limited. (p. 117)
viiiLovell and Ive. (p. 222)
ixNorman (p. 27)

···

Michael Hall

Hi! I am a digital product designer and website/web application developer always seeking a better version of myself. Follow my journey as I share my story (and expertise) through the mutable, ever-changing, ever-growing world of design, web development and technology.
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