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The most difficult thing about teaching design is just explaining what it is. It’s one of those things that seems better understood by proximity and experience than explicit dogmatic teaching since by its nature, it’s best described as broadly and non-specifically as possible.

What would be an accurate way to describe design? One of the best that I’ve heard is that "design is the rendering of care” but this makes it sound like this care is the exclusive domain of design, that PMs or engineers don’t render care, or that the degree to which they do is the degree to which they concern themselves with design in their roles. This is unfair.

Naoto Fukasawa has said that, “great design is a multi-layered relationship between human life and its environment.” This is also deeply true but also so broadly applicable that it doesn’t explain much.

We run into this problem where the more holistically we describe design, the more accurate but unhelpful our description is.

But it’s also very important that we’re able to communicate this. Good design is good storytelling, and it’s incumbent on designers to communicate the value of design to effect the change they’d like to see. Moreover, design suffers when we don’t inspire a diverse cohort of people to become interested in design. Designers demographically aren’t representative of the communities they work with and we don’t get as good feedback. Design quality is also too important to be left to chance; as a society and industry, we can’t afford to leave the quality of design to chance.

So what is design? Below is my attempt to explain it to an audience only vaguely familiar with it:

Design is a process

Though most people think of visual design when they think of design, design is really a way of thinking. As popularized by places like the Stanford d.school, Design Thinking is a process (a series of steps) that is at the heart of what it means to design something.

At its heart, all design is a technology: it’s a mechanism that was developed to achieve something that was previously impossible. This is the reason it’s possible to patent design—it’s not just an aesthetic creation—it does something that before couldn’t be done.

Design is a philosophy or value system

Design is a team sport. Design cares about accessibility. Design values sustainability. Design values minimalism as a path to refinement, simplicity, and accessibility.

There’s a reason that design as a concept is so often communicated through philosophical quotes: it’s really about a belief system as expressed through work. Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles is probably the most famous of these expressions. Design, beyond process considerations (even if practiced without structure) is about a system of values or philosophies.

As industrial designer Harry Bertoia said, “the urge for good design is the same as the urge to go on living. The assumption is that somewhere, hidden, is a better way of doing things.” Design is the pursuit of this better future.

Design is also built on design that has come before it. It operates within a canon of design culture that informs and shapes how it operates. Typefaces aren’t neutral shapes, for example. A shared value system has constructed how we interpret their use. Some things, conventions, were once innovations in design but now, with their origin stories less immediately remembered, are now more “best practices” or doctrines than they are conscious choices each time. This is a necessary aspect of maturity in any discipline, for eventually it gets too big for any one person to understand in its entirety or reinvent each time.

Design is a relationship

It’s a relationship between designers and the people design impacts and broadly between people and their environments. Architecture and urban planning have such a big impact on the design community and scholarly conversation in large part because of how big of an impact they have had, particularly historically. Now, with the advent of smartphones, AI, and the internet in everyone’s pockets, I’d argue that human computer interaction design isn’t getting as much attention from these traditional design quarters as it’s due even if it now dominates the conversation about design on the internet.

Regardless of where it happens, design mediates these relationships. Nearly every interaction in your day (seeing an advertisement, opening a door, doing anything with your phone, interacting with the government, etc.) was designed. And this isn’t a one-way street, nor does it exist in a vacuum. It is different because you used it. In this way, everyone is a designer since everyone is part of the system of relationships that is design.

Design is an outcome

Design isn’t random in its impact. Design is the way that the world becomes more delightful, understandable, usable, and efficient, to name a few.

When people think of good design, more often than not they think of visual design and disciplines of design that are the most closely related to it: graphic, interior, and fashion design. These are the kinds of design that people are most familiar with because it is what they readily perceived as “new”.

There’s a tendency for this kind of design to be decoration or entertainment rather than really design. How are we to tell the difference? We have to examine the outcomes that the design has. It’s against these that we can judge design. How do people’s lives change? How are things that were once difficult now easy? How have people been inspired to new ways of living, being, and doing?

A work in progress.

Ideas

What is design?

The most difficult thing about teaching design is just explaining what it is. It’s one of those things that seems better understood by proximity and experience than explicit dogmatic teaching since by its nature, it’s best described as broadly and non-specifically as possible.

What would be an accurate way to describe design? One of the best that I’ve heard is that "design is the rendering of care” but this makes it sound like this care is the exclusive domain of design, that PMs or engineers don’t render care, or that the degree to which they do is the degree to which they concern themselves with design in their roles. This is unfair.

Naoto Fukasawa has said that, “great design is a multi-layered relationship between human life and its environment.” This is also deeply true but also so broadly applicable that it doesn’t explain much.

We run into this problem where the more holistically we describe design, the more accurate but unhelpful our description is.

But it’s also very important that we’re able to communicate this. Good design is good storytelling, and it’s incumbent on designers to communicate the value of design to effect the change they’d like to see. Moreover, design suffers when we don’t inspire a diverse cohort of people to become interested in design. Designers demographically aren’t representative of the communities they work with and we don’t get as good feedback. Design quality is also too important to be left to chance; as a society and industry, we can’t afford to leave the quality of design to chance.

So what is design? Below is my attempt to explain it to an audience only vaguely familiar with it:

Design is a process

Though most people think of visual design when they think of design, design is really a way of thinking. As popularized by places like the Stanford d.school, Design Thinking is a process (a series of steps) that is at the heart of what it means to design something.

At its heart, all design is a technology: it’s a mechanism that was developed to achieve something that was previously impossible. This is the reason it’s possible to patent design—it’s not just an aesthetic creation—it does something that before couldn’t be done.

Design is a philosophy or value system

Design is a team sport. Design cares about accessibility. Design values sustainability. Design values minimalism as a path to refinement, simplicity, and accessibility.

There’s a reason that design as a concept is so often communicated through philosophical quotes: it’s really about a belief system as expressed through work. Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles is probably the most famous of these expressions. Design, beyond process considerations (even if practiced without structure) is about a system of values or philosophies.

As industrial designer Harry Bertoia said, “the urge for good design is the same as the urge to go on living. The assumption is that somewhere, hidden, is a better way of doing things.” Design is the pursuit of this better future.

Design is also built on design that has come before it. It operates within a canon of design culture that informs and shapes how it operates. Typefaces aren’t neutral shapes, for example. A shared value system has constructed how we interpret their use. Some things, conventions, were once innovations in design but now, with their origin stories less immediately remembered, are now more “best practices” or doctrines than they are conscious choices each time. This is a necessary aspect of maturity in any discipline, for eventually it gets too big for any one person to understand in its entirety or reinvent each time.

Design is a relationship

It’s a relationship between designers and the people design impacts and broadly between people and their environments. Architecture and urban planning have such a big impact on the design community and scholarly conversation in large part because of how big of an impact they have had, particularly historically. Now, with the advent of smartphones, AI, and the internet in everyone’s pockets, I’d argue that human computer interaction design isn’t getting as much attention from these traditional design quarters as it’s due even if it now dominates the conversation about design on the internet.

Regardless of where it happens, design mediates these relationships. Nearly every interaction in your day (seeing an advertisement, opening a door, doing anything with your phone, interacting with the government, etc.) was designed. And this isn’t a one-way street, nor does it exist in a vacuum. It is different because you used it. In this way, everyone is a designer since everyone is part of the system of relationships that is design.

Design is an outcome

Design isn’t random in its impact. Design is the way that the world becomes more delightful, understandable, usable, and efficient, to name a few.

When people think of good design, more often than not they think of visual design and disciplines of design that are the most closely related to it: graphic, interior, and fashion design. These are the kinds of design that people are most familiar with because it is what they readily perceived as “new”.

There’s a tendency for this kind of design to be decoration or entertainment rather than really design. How are we to tell the difference? We have to examine the outcomes that the design has. It’s against these that we can judge design. How do people’s lives change? How are things that were once difficult now easy? How have people been inspired to new ways of living, being, and doing?

A work in progress.

Updated continuously • Last edited on
9.9.23
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Ideas

What is design?

No items found.
Updated continuously •
Last edited on
9.9.23

The most difficult thing about teaching design is just explaining what it is. It’s one of those things that seems better understood by proximity and experience than explicit dogmatic teaching since by its nature, it’s best described as broadly and non-specifically as possible.

What would be an accurate way to describe design? One of the best that I’ve heard is that "design is the rendering of care” but this makes it sound like this care is the exclusive domain of design, that PMs or engineers don’t render care, or that the degree to which they do is the degree to which they concern themselves with design in their roles. This is unfair.

Naoto Fukasawa has said that, “great design is a multi-layered relationship between human life and its environment.” This is also deeply true but also so broadly applicable that it doesn’t explain much.

We run into this problem where the more holistically we describe design, the more accurate but unhelpful our description is.

But it’s also very important that we’re able to communicate this. Good design is good storytelling, and it’s incumbent on designers to communicate the value of design to effect the change they’d like to see. Moreover, design suffers when we don’t inspire a diverse cohort of people to become interested in design. Designers demographically aren’t representative of the communities they work with and we don’t get as good feedback. Design quality is also too important to be left to chance; as a society and industry, we can’t afford to leave the quality of design to chance.

So what is design? Below is my attempt to explain it to an audience only vaguely familiar with it:

Design is a process

Though most people think of visual design when they think of design, design is really a way of thinking. As popularized by places like the Stanford d.school, Design Thinking is a process (a series of steps) that is at the heart of what it means to design something.

At its heart, all design is a technology: it’s a mechanism that was developed to achieve something that was previously impossible. This is the reason it’s possible to patent design—it’s not just an aesthetic creation—it does something that before couldn’t be done.

Design is a philosophy or value system

Design is a team sport. Design cares about accessibility. Design values sustainability. Design values minimalism as a path to refinement, simplicity, and accessibility.

There’s a reason that design as a concept is so often communicated through philosophical quotes: it’s really about a belief system as expressed through work. Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles is probably the most famous of these expressions. Design, beyond process considerations (even if practiced without structure) is about a system of values or philosophies.

As industrial designer Harry Bertoia said, “the urge for good design is the same as the urge to go on living. The assumption is that somewhere, hidden, is a better way of doing things.” Design is the pursuit of this better future.

Design is also built on design that has come before it. It operates within a canon of design culture that informs and shapes how it operates. Typefaces aren’t neutral shapes, for example. A shared value system has constructed how we interpret their use. Some things, conventions, were once innovations in design but now, with their origin stories less immediately remembered, are now more “best practices” or doctrines than they are conscious choices each time. This is a necessary aspect of maturity in any discipline, for eventually it gets too big for any one person to understand in its entirety or reinvent each time.

Design is a relationship

It’s a relationship between designers and the people design impacts and broadly between people and their environments. Architecture and urban planning have such a big impact on the design community and scholarly conversation in large part because of how big of an impact they have had, particularly historically. Now, with the advent of smartphones, AI, and the internet in everyone’s pockets, I’d argue that human computer interaction design isn’t getting as much attention from these traditional design quarters as it’s due even if it now dominates the conversation about design on the internet.

Regardless of where it happens, design mediates these relationships. Nearly every interaction in your day (seeing an advertisement, opening a door, doing anything with your phone, interacting with the government, etc.) was designed. And this isn’t a one-way street, nor does it exist in a vacuum. It is different because you used it. In this way, everyone is a designer since everyone is part of the system of relationships that is design.

Design is an outcome

Design isn’t random in its impact. Design is the way that the world becomes more delightful, understandable, usable, and efficient, to name a few.

When people think of good design, more often than not they think of visual design and disciplines of design that are the most closely related to it: graphic, interior, and fashion design. These are the kinds of design that people are most familiar with because it is what they readily perceived as “new”.

There’s a tendency for this kind of design to be decoration or entertainment rather than really design. How are we to tell the difference? We have to examine the outcomes that the design has. It’s against these that we can judge design. How do people’s lives change? How are things that were once difficult now easy? How have people been inspired to new ways of living, being, and doing?

A work in progress.

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