“…Fonts, Symbols, Graphics, Layouts, Posters, Instructions, Nuts and Bolts, Furniture, Interiors, Buildings, Cities, Cars, Transportation Systems, Signage and Wayfinding, Aerospace, Fabrics, Patterns, Clothing, Jewellery, Cosmetics, Materials, Packaging, Recipes, Food styling, Textures, Sound, Music, Health care protocols, Vaccines and Medications, Communication Technology, Software and Hardware, Apps, Interfaces, Environments, Systems, Information, Education, Experience, Interactions, Sports, Tools and Equipment, Stories, Movies, Characters, Set Design, Lightning Design, Games, Business, Brand Strategies, Culture, Society, Nature, Life, and pretty much almost everything.“
Now hold on, I will try to dissect this a little bit for you, because this can get overwhelming very quickly. But I hope that after reading the first paragraph you have realized that design plays a role in everything (just insert the word design and you should be good to go). Therefore, it should not be difficult to understand that there are many ways to define ‘what design is’ and that each definition is true for the specific field in which ‘that design’ operates. But broadly speaking, it (design as a verb) is the process of altering reality (what is) to achieve a different future (what could be). FYI - the outcome of this process is also referred to as ‘design’ but this time it is a noun.
The ‘go to’ definition of design is usually problem-solving. However, problems and solutions are not always present (Marcel Duchamp – “There is no solution because there is no problem”. This quote hints on the fact that we also desperately need a definition for what is considered to be a problem. Opinions on this matter might differ from person to person.) One way how to explain it is that nowadays we are not faced with major problems (usually) – and in these instances design is used to make things more efficient, attractive, or cheaper (not all of these are always achievable at once) rather than solving a (life-threatening) problem. (ie. Everything works but it could be better – sort of situation.) Therefore, it might be wise to leave the definition of design a bit more open – perhaps stating that design is ‘the process (and also the result of the process) of improvement’. But if you ask Uncle Google then these are the definitions that make the top of the list:
“…a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is made.”
“…a decorative pattern.”
“…the way in which something is planned and made.”
“The verb to design expresses the process of developing a design.”
As you can see, the first and third examples generally mean ‘to make the plans and drawings necessary for the construction of physical objects’ (which is likely referring to architecture and industrial design), and in contrast the second one reduces design to ‘the decorative surface treatment of objects’. Meanwhile the last one remains relatively vague; therefore, it is applicable to most design disciplines.
Wait, there is no way that everything is design! Right?
Yes, you are right...
Saying that ‘everything is design’ is:
a ) just a lazy way to describe it
b) not possible
c) simply not true
Within the definition of design, it must be understood that “the act of describing an existing artifact or system is not a design act” (Archer, 1969). Therefore, the thing being designed may take some inspiration from other existing artifacts, but it cannot be a copy (ain‘t nobody got time for plagiarism) which means that design must involve some form of innovation or a certain amount of originality.
Are you still with me? I hope you are! But mind you, we are just scratching the surface…
Even though, we have established that design is not everything, the same cannot be said about its impact on society, culture, economy, environment... (this time it makes sense to say that everything is influenced by design). However, we would be foolish to think that designers are ‘invincible, god-like entities’ they are far from it actually. They must obey the wants and needs of the customer (which might be the client or the target market), they also have to follow the trail of money (necessary for their own survival and the success of the project) and follow the instructions of the government (things like laws, policies and guidelines). Design is part of a larger system and it cannot dictate what is right or wrong without the support from the other pieces within this machine.
This machine creates a perfect ‘loop’, where brands want to offer some sort of benefit to their customers, so they figure out what people might want/need/desire. Designers are then presented with the task to make such a product which they then present to the public (essentially trying to make you want it), ensuring that people would buy it. -> What people buy directly influences what brands offer and what designers end up making (law of supply and demand). So, in the case of environmental issues – the blame should not rest solely on the shoulders of designers or brands, because we (as in humanity - as in all of us) are guilty of making decisions that make the situation worse. Of course, we must consider that 'regular people' do not have enough knowledge to make an informed decision and that is why designers should be the main advocates for sustainable design (and whether or not their voice is being heard is another question).
What about the design process?
Well, again this might be slightly different for each design discipline but anything that is designed must begin with a problem (or a certain goal/aim/objective) for which we are trying to develop a solution (or a way of achieving that desired outcome). This process involves rigorous research during which the designer develops better understanding of the situation (empathizing with the end user, defining the problem, looking at policies and guidelines), then there is the ideation phase (generating crazy, creative ideas, while taking inspiration from related and unrelated sources), prototyping (building a real representations of the solution) and testing (time to return to the potential users or clients for feedback) and if all goes well then we can start to implement our solution (but getting it right the first time is almost impossible).
Do not forget that this is just a framework – a loose map of the steps – so the design process does not necessarily follow a straight line as the framework might suggest, it is more of a loop (good design is built on proper feedback). Designers progress from one stage to another and revisit some steps a couple of times when necessary. After all it is still (partially) a creative process and you cannot limit creativity or problem-solving to a prescribed path (you also cannot expect a good quality outcome in a short amount of time – trust me, revisions are your best friends). Scott Berkun, the author of ‘How Design Makes the world’ (2020), refers to this process as the ‘Create – Learn Loop’, a much better name than the often used ‘design thinking’ term (which almost purposefully shrouds design in secrecy as if it were some sort of dark magic – unattainable for most).
When is it finished?
The end goal is to improve something for someone. This means that the design process should not end when you have built something but once you’ve built the right thing. (Once again, a reminder to continuously test your ideas and keep asking the right questions!)
Design and time
We can also observe how our understanding of design and our expectations of it change over time. There was a time (referring to the time of the industrial revolution) when the main concern of designers was to make sure that things ‘work’ and over time they managed to add the ‘looks’ (aesthetics) into the mix too. (Although, architecture and furniture might have had the ‘looks’ long before any machines did because they are closely tied to culture and art.) But as we (society) have progressed, we have developed standards (and ways to meet these standards) which are much higher than what our ancestors could have ever dream of.
Which brings us to the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – at the very bottom we have basic physiological needs for survival, then we have safety, then love and belonging, followed by esteem and lastly self-actualization. So, the very first design objects (sharp stones, weaved baskets, or clothing made from fur and plants) were made to satisfy our basic needs (food, warmth, shelter) but as we have progressed the things we make had to progress too.
Fast forward to today. In developed countries, our basic needs are mostly satisfied, but we have a much bigger appetite -> most of our time and money is spend on our wants and desires (pleasures). Perhaps, it is because we hope to develop our esteem (through our possessions) or to reach self-actualization (through our experiences) – and maybe advertising has something to do with it too.
The things we make now are different from our humble beginnings on many levels – the purpose, the technology, the material, the amount, the speed, the process... (I think you get my point.) Our accountability towards the environment has also changed – it is not great by any means, but we are aware of our actions and we are developing and implementing new strategies to reduce the environmental impact of man-made things: products, services, and systems (or that is atleast what seems to be making the headlines now, right?).
Why do we design?
“When a man experiences a discrepancy between the condition as it is, and the condition as he would like it to be, he experiences discontent. Should the feeling of discontent be sufficiently strong, the man takes action calculated to change the condition so that it more nearly approximates to the condition he desires.” (Archer, 1969) Essentially, from what we have covered so far, we can say that there are three main reasons why we design, one is because it is in our nature, another one is because we need it and the last one is because it brings us pleasure.
In the 21st century we have developed several new design disciplines (welcome to the era of all things digital) which are redefining design and shifting their focus to different areas. Let’s take a look at the definition of UX design:
“…the process of designing (digital or physical) products that are useful, easy to use, and delightful to interact with.”
UX does not mention anything about the function (okay maybe I can acknowledge the fact that it mentions - useful) or the looks (to put it simply - today, function and aesthetics are expected), instead there is a much stronger emphasis on the experience. (What a surprise when the discipline is literally called user experience design, right?) The bottom line is that design is now more human-centred, it recognizes that there is a direct link between ‘how we feel/behave’ and ‘the things we surround ourselves with and interact with’.
This shift in design matters especially because of our psychological predisposition -> we tend to act and feel like different people depending on what is in front of our eyes (the environment).
"Doors with the handles facing you tell you to ‘Pull’ while doors without such features tell you to ‘Push’. A chair made from bend steel tubing will make us feel one way while an upholstered wooden chair will make us feel a different way. An abstract painting made with sharp lines, edges, and corners will elicit some kind of emotions and a dreamy landscape painting filled with elements from nature will elicit a different kind of emotions."
Our identities, behaviour and moods are constantly adapting, and it is the designed environment that determines how we feel and act. Now the funny thing is that everything that surrounds us is already designed (either by nature or man-made) and we are moulding ourselves to fit within this reality (humanity adapts - it is ever-changing – in constant motion). But we are still designing new ‘things’, we are still trying to fix life with design, with objects frozen in time, with rigid systems of numbers and symbols…
My point is that - what we are designing for the future is based on the current form of life, but this form of life is based on the already designed environment which we live in. I know that this gets quite confusing, but essentially life and design create this infinite loop that never stops… and no one can tell where it begins or ends – the problem is never solved. That is if there is an actual problem to solve. Arguably this might be the moment when we admit that the only problem that we have is humanity itself. (At this point in the movie the army of robots equipped with Artificial Intelligence has figured it out too. Can you guess what is their solution?)
Okay, I’ll give you a few minutes to digest that…
Now, that we have covered the issues of 'the design process' and 'how design objectives changed over time' (from cavemen to the age of Apple) we should also address the issue of space. (Well, not literally. I cannot imagine how we would track design around the globe.)
The question is, where does design belong?
There are two areas that would like to claim the ownership – and that would be Art and Science. If Design had to be placed on a scale where one end represents Art and the opposite end is labelled Science, then Design would land somewhere in the middle. Of course, with different design disciplines there has to be some ‘wiggle’ room – we can’t put fashion or graphic design in the same exact spot as design engineering or biomimicry (nature-inspired) design. Arguably, we should not have to worry about assigning Design to either one of those ends because Design has established a place of its own as Nigel Cross, in his book ‘Designerly Ways of Knowing’ (2006), says:
“Everything we have around us has been designed. Design ability is, in fact, one of the three fundamental dimensions of human intelligence. Design, science, and art form an ‘AND’ not an ‘OR’ relationship to create the incredible human cognitive ability.”
(This is all I have to say about Design for now, I will report back if I come across any major breakthroughs.
If there is anything you disagree with or if there is something I have missed then do not be shy - I am all ears!)
Archer, L. B. (1969) The structure of the design processes. Royal College of Art. Berkun, S. (2020) How Design Makes the World. Berkun Media, LLC. At: https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=92FazQEACAAJ Cross, N. (2006) Designerly Ways of Knowing. (s.l.): Springer Science & Business Media. Kuang, C. and Fabricant, R. (2020) User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play. Picador. At: https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=CG6kzAEACAAJ