Travis Wall

(Sometimes Graphic) Designer. Working on a PhD: Design Thinking +/= Heterogeneous Engineering. General flâneur. Chronic knowledge gatherer.

Location: Sydney, Australia

What is Design? A Collection of Definitions and Thoughts

The word design is thrown around a lot: we have people called graphic designers, industrial designers, fashion designers, interior designers, interaction designers to name a few… and these are just job titles using the word… to go along with all the people who generate designs, such as mechanical engineers, civil engineers, computer engineers, architects, urban planners, policy makers, and so on. It could be very reasonably argued that just about everyone designs as part of what they do, professionally or otherwise. What does this mean for the word design? What does design actually mean? Does it even have any useful meaning anymore? This is an on-going project collecting attempts people have made at pinning down this design word into something meaningful.

First, some thoughts on the use of the word design

Design is a cloudy term used in many ways, which generally funnel into two channels – a noun associated with objects of fashion and style, and a verb describing strategic creating of things to achieve some kind of goal – problem solving – as is commonly proclaimed. This is a difficulty noted as far back as Bryan Lawson’s 1980 book How Designers Think. This problem is more difficult than ever though, because the use of the word design is getting more attention and usage than ever. Which design are people talking about when they talk about design?

The consumer success of Apple is credited to their design focus, because they do the noun design very well – creating ‘beautiful’ objects of detail, fashion and stylistic desirability. Then companies like IDEO are championed for their design approach, but they do the verb kind – figuring out the needs of people and creating material things to meet these needs. These are two very different kinds of design. Apple is a cathedral – crafting aesthetically pleasing objects behind closed doors and unveiling them to the masses when they’re ready (perfect). IDEO is more like a bazaar – groups of people making ad-hoc and scrappy prototypes of things, throwing them into the real world with real people in real time, and rapidly moving through iterations of the prototype with the people.

This design stuff is so popular that even large organisations are appointing Chief Design Officers. But what do these people actually do? Are they in charge of making sure everything the organisation produces has an Apple-like attention to style? Or are they in charge of aligning the organisation so that everything flows more like a babbling bazaar?

This seems like a slightly pedantic argument over semantics, but it really does cause problems. How is it that somebody from the fashionable part of town who is agonising over a combination of fonts and colours to use on a brochure sharing an occupation description with somebody from the industrial part of town trying to figure out how to deal with road surface runoff on a new road that helps people get to places faster? In the current state of play, both people call themselves designers. Issues around expectations arise – if I sell myself as a designer, do people think I’m interested in making things look beautiful, or creating strategies and things to meet the needs of people? Is making something beautiful part of making something work? Are they sequential: the form versus function debate? Should every use of the word come with a note on which strand of design is being talked about? Is design ready to be thrown on the linguistic scrapheap as a word that has become completely useless through overuse?

A collection of design definitions

The following is a collection of attempts various designers and thinkers have made at grappling with what design actually is. I have no expectation of reaching a conclusion, and quotes here are in no particular order (unless otherwise noted) and accompanied by some of my own notes. I have also set this up (designed, even?) to expand as I come across further attempts, so I’m considering this an ongoing project. Some of these can also be found on, mixed with other things.

John Chris Jones (1980) in Design Methods (pp3-5)

Literature on design methods began to appear in most industrialized countries in the nineteen fifties and sixties. Before that time it was sufficient to know that designing was what architects, engineers, industrial designers and others did in order to produce the drawings needed by their clients and by manufacturers. Now things are different. There are plenty of professional designers who doubt the procedures that they have been taught to use and plenty of new methods that have been invented to replace the traditional ones.

A common feature of both the criticisms of traditional methods and the proposals for new ones is the attempt to isolate the essence of designing and to write it down as a standard method, or recipe, that can be relied upon m all situations. Some recent definitions and descriptions of designing appear below.

Finding the right physical components of a physical structure (Alexander, 1963)

A goal-directed problem-solving activity (Archer, 1965)

Decision making, in the face of uncertainty, with high penalties for error (Asimow, 1962)

Simulating what we want to make (or do) before we make (or do) it as many tunes as may be necessary to feel confident in the final result (Booker, 1964)

The conditioning factor for those parts of the product which come into contact with people (Farr, 1966)

Engineering design is the use of scientific principles, technical information and imagination in the definition of a mechanical structure, machine or system to perform prespecified functions with the maximum economy and efficiency (Fielden, 1963)

Relating product with situation to give satisfaction (Gregory, 1966)

The performing of a very complicated act of faith (Jones, 1966)

The optimum solution to the sum of the true needs of a particular set of circumstances (Matchett, 1968)

The imaginative jump from present facts to future possibilities (Page, 1966)

A creative activity—it involves bringing into being something new and useful that has not existed previously (Reswick, 1965).

The first surprise about these quotations is that they differ so much: only about a tenth of the important words are mentioned more than once. There seem to be as many kinds of design process as there are writers about it. Another surprise is that nobody mentions drawing, the one common action of designers of all kinds. Certainly the above quotations give little support to the idea that designing is the same under all circumstances, and, as we will see later, the methods proposed by design theorists are ]ust as diverse as are their descriptions of the design process.

Perhaps the variety which is so obviously present in the literature on designing is a useful clue. In getting away from drawing, and from the conventional ways of thinking about design, the theorists may together have produced the very thing that is needed to overcome the weakness of traditional designing, that ‘thing’ being variety itself, a greater variety than that which exists in the experience and expertise of any one designer, of any one design profession or, for that matter, of any one design theorist.

One thing that is common to all the above descriptions is that they refer, not to the outcome of designing, but to its ingredients. These, as we have seen, differ as much as do the ingredients in a recipe book, if not more so. If we seek a firmer basis for our thoughts we had better look outside the process itself and try to define designing by its results. A simple way of doing this is to look at the end of the chain of events that begins with the sponsor’s wish and moves through the actions of designers, manufacturers, distributors and consumers to the ultimate effects of a newly designed thing upon the world at large. All one can say with certainty is that society, or the world, is not the same as it was before the new design appeared. The new design has, if successful, changed the situation in just the way that the sponsor hoped it would. If the design is unsuccessful (which in many cases is more likely) the final effect may be far from the sponsor’s hopes and the designer’s predictions but it is still a change of one kind or another. In either case we can conclude that the effect of designing is to initiate change in man-made things. This, for the moment at least, can be our simple but universal definition of the expanding process that formerly took place on a drawing board but now includes ‘R and D’, purchasing, design for production, product planning, marketing, system planning and other things besides. As soon as we think about this ultimate definition, we see that it applies not only to the work of engineers, architects and other design professionals but also to the activities of economic planners, legislators, managers, publicists, applied researchers, protesters, politicians and pressure groups who are in the business of getting products, markets, urban areas, public services, opinions, laws, and the like, to change in form and in content. What, in all this diversity, has happened to designers? Have they, under the modern pressures to become more scientific, to participate and to coalesce, lost the special quality that distinguished them from those who do ‘uncreative’ work? Surely the answer is ‘yes’. ‘Yes’ because designing is outgrowing its reliance upon the mysteries of being able to draw and of being able to foresee future situations in visual form: and ‘yes’ because all the non-designing professions have now to plan their activities on an industrial basis making use of man-machine systems wherever possible.

John Chris Jones may have been the first person to collect definitions of design.

Herbert Simon (1969) in The Sciences of the Artificial (p111)

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.

Might be considered the first classic definition of the design studies movement. Note that there is no prerequisite of a material object.

Ilpo Koskinen, John Zimmerman, Thomas Binder, Johan Redstrom, Stephan Wensveen (2011) in Design Research Through Practice: From the Lab, Field, and Showroom (p42)

Designers are people who are paid to produce visions of better futures and make those futures happen.

This definition emphasises the role of imagination more than most. Another interesting component its hinging on the idea of better – what constitutes better, and from whose perspective? Better is a preferred state of one perspective, but design situations contain multiple perspectives (this where Herbert Simon’s definition shines).

Tim Brown (2014) on Lean Startup meets Design Thinking

At it’s most abstract level design is about crafting the world around us to meet the needs of us as people … Through an understanding of people, we can then craft the technology and materials we have at our disposal to create things, they might be products, they might be services, they might be systems, that most meet the needs of those people.

Nigel Cross (1982) in Designerly Ways of Knowing (p221)

A principal outcome of a research project at the Royal College of Art on ‘Design in General Education’ was the statement of a belief in a missing ‘third area’ of education. The two already-established areas can be broadly classified as education in the sciences and education in the arts, or humanities. These two cultures’ have long been recognised as dominating our social, cultural and educational systems. In the traditional English educational system, especially, children have been required to choose one or other of these two cultures to specialise in at a relatively early age.

The ‘third culture’ is not so easily recognised, simply because it has been neglected, and has not been adequately named or articulated. In their report (Royal College of Art, 1979), Bruce Archer and his colleagues were prepared to call it “Design with a capital D’ and to articulate it as ‘the collected experience of the material culture, and the collected body of experience, skill and understanding embodied in the arts of planning, inventing, making and doing’.

From the RCA report, the following conclusions can be drawn on the nature of ‘Design with a capital D’:

  • The central concern of Design is ‘the conception and realisation of new things’.
  • It encompasses the appreciation of ‘material culture’ and the application of ‘the arts of planning, inventing, making and doing’.
  • At its core is the ‘language’ of ‘modelling’; it is possible to develop students’ aptitudes in this ‘language’, equivalent to aptitudes in the “language’ of the sciences (numeracy) and the ‘language’ of humanities (literacy).
  • Design has its own distinct ‘things to know, ways of knowing them, and ways of finding out about them.

Sydney A Gregory (1966) in The Design Method

The scientific method is a pattern of problem-solving behaviour employed in finding out the nature of what exists, whereas the design method is a pattern of behaviour employed in inventing things of value which do not yet exist. Science is analytic; design is constructive.

Richard Buchanan and Victor Margolin (1990) in Discovering Design (pxiii)

If design exists as a feature of cultural life, what is it? Is it, as civil engineer Henry Petroski suggests, the disassembling and reassembling of the parts of nature? Or is it, as Nobel Prize winning economist and scientist Herbert Simon suggests, a new domain best described as the science of the artificial? Or, is it, as others suggest, a new form of practical art and communication? The possibility of meaning has led to diverse ideas and claims about design. Young designers are rightfully confused about the pluralism of competing ideas, and they struggle to form their own concepts and find a place in the design professions. For design literature, the discovery that design can have meaning has led to protracted debate over the best definition of design. The debate has been valuable, but it has not led to consensus. Indeed, it has often led to acrimony and a fragmentation of the design community into schools and sects, each driven by a different vision of the meaning of design. At its best, however, debate about the meaning and definition of design has gradually broadened the subject matter under discussion, revealing new aspects of products and suggesting alternative paths for exploration practice and reflection.

Norman Potter (1980) in What is a designer: things, places, messages (p109)

Design is thus simultaneously a realm of values and a matter of engrossingly particular decisions, many of which are highly technical. There is a threshold up to which we can quantify, and this is often enough the task for a professional: less an equation of meaning than one of ordered evidence. Beyond this threshold, design is strictly a cultural option. It always has been. We humble ourselves, we sharpen our wits, and we offer, at the very least, our moments of lucidity. Our concern is always ‘the place of value in a world of facts’, but there is no role waiting for us, there is merely the chance of making one out of the sheer courage of our perceptions. In the same way, if you want to link hands with the spirit of the modern movement, it won’t come to meet you; you must go out and make it your own.

Mike Press and Rachel Cooper (2003) in The Design Experience: The Role of Design and Designers in the Twenty-First Century (p6-7)

However much our world has changed, and will change in the future, these words still hold true. Design is a value-driven activity. In creating change, designers impose values upon the world – values of their own or those of their client. To be a designer is a cultural option: designers create culture, create experience and meaning for people. And finally, designers make their own futures – this is their most crucial creation. Design education provides possibilities, challenges, skills and understanding, and, with these, they make their lives.

A designer is a maker. This definition works on a number of different levels. First, and most fundamentally, the activities and skills of making lie at the very heart of design. ‘Craft’ may have evolved culturally as a term that has become intellectually divorced from the pursuit of beauty (art) and purpose (design), but as a definition for the skills and knowledge that put things together, and make things work by using hand and brain in tandem, craft is an essential part of design.

Second, the designer makes meaning possible. Crafting a design solution is merely the first part of a design process which is continued by users or consumers as part of their lives – or ‘everyday consumption work’ as Chaney describes it. Every designed product, communication or environment provides human experiences. Wendy Brawer’s Green Apple Map provides a new way of experiencing New York, Good Grips’ kitchen tools provide an easier cooking experience for those with arthritis, Jane Harris’s digital textiles enhance the realism and viewing experience of animated movies. And all experiences whether in the city, kitchen, cinema or elsewhere, carry meaning and forms of representation By enabling meaning, the designer is a maker of culture. As we will argue in the following chapter, the designer is a cultural intermediary.

Third, the designer makes their own definition of what it is to be a designer and how to use the distinctive skills, knowledge and thinking of design to find a place in the world. This is especially true in today’s age of the knowledge economy, flexible employment patterns and fast-changing technology. Creativity, ingenuity and imagination are increasing the value in the new economy that is emerging, and these are qualities that design education encourages above all. At the same time, the old certainties regarding patterns of work and life-long careers are dissolving.

What designers actually do, how they work and earn a livelihood are no longer fixed ideas, if they ever really were. Opportunism, enterprise and flexibility are equally vital qualities that designers must possess. Wendy Brawer exemplifies how coming up with a good design idea is not enough. She brings her entrepreneurial skills and opportunistic use of new communication technologies together to turn this into a worldwide agent of change. Jane Harris shows how skills and knowledge learnt in one field of design can be applied to another related field.

So, designers are a combination of craftmaker, cultural intermediary and opportunistic entrepreneur. And of course they are other things as well. They are skilled researchers, life-long learners, who understand that design – as a very process of change itself – must be informed by changing knowledge. Indeed, design is an expression and embodiment of knowledge. Good Grips kitchen tools express our understanding of the changing ergonomic requirements of people in an ageing society. Part of this understanding comes from quite literally stepping into the shoes of users to research needs, as Patricia Moore did. Furthermore, Good Grips embodies a whole range of research into materials, usability and marketing. Jane Harris’s digital textiles embody four years’ painstaking doctoral research.

Designers are also adept communicators who can place their work in context and act as champions for it. Research and communication have always lain at the heart of design although they have been seen as somehow tangential to the creative process. Part of the new experience of being a designer is that they are now seen as central activities.

Finally, designers are active citizens. Again they always have been, but during the Thatcherite glory days, design was seen solely as the engine of added value and competitiveness, and designers were seen as part of the business consultancy industry whose main job was to downsize, re-engineer, rationalise and tart up public utilities before they were sold off. In 1997, Tony Blair’s New Labour government signalled a change in this narrow view of design. Alongside growing encouragement for design to contribute to innovation and competitiveness were policy measures to use design to tackle social and environmental problems and contribute to the national culture in more inclusive ways. This rekindles the idea of responsible citizenship in the design professions – to use design as a form of social entrepreneurship concerned with the quality and experience of life for all people.

Stuart Walker (2013) in Imagination’s Promise: practice-based design research for sustainability (p3)

Many forms of academic inquiry adopt a procedure that includes breaking down the topic into its constituent elements, categorization, investigation and prioritization. This is an analytical approach to research. Designing, however, is concerned less with analysis than with synthesis. It composes, organizes and constructs, and resolves and integrates disparate factors. It is concerned with the entirety, and seeks articulation by sensitive consideration of the whole, taking into account factors such as function, aesthetics and materials. In the process, the designer is realizing, discerning, becoming aware of hitherto unknown or unrecognized relationships and connections, and discovering through a symbiotic, creative process of thinking-and-doing.

This Stuart Walker quote is more about about the meaning of design as an academic discipline than dealing with the general terminology of design. The point made here about synthesis over analysis is an interesting box to unpack a little. The trajectory of design theory has tended towards analysis of the design process to develop some kind of theory – body of knowledge – and the goal of design research is apparently to fill the gaps in this body of knowledge. As Stuart Walker is pointing to, this analytical approach is at odds with the synthesis involved in doing design. This synthesis – grappling with material culture – is a temporal matter because synthesis is a performative process. Live, unscripted performances always involve a matter of mess and ad-hoc nature about it all. Directions can evolve quickly and uncontrollably, and unexpected actors can be enrolled or discarded without notice. This mess and ad-hoc performance is the problem to be tamed by design. Design theory is a discipline grown out of thinking in industrial design, graphic design, architecture etc – professions concerned with smoothing over rough surfaces. This implies that the mess has already been discovered and somebody has to come in and clean it up – this is the problem solving aspect of design. So it is interesting that Stuart Walker notes discovery – who finds the mess to begin with?


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