What is design?

Design is both a noun and a verb. Understanding the meaning of ‘design’ is necessary to define a designer. This series of posts is to thus to verbalize my own thoughts and collate what designing means, and what are the different parts which sum it up.

Dictionary.com gives a few meanings of design off which these two would come close to what I have in mind.

  • esp. to plan the form and structure of
  • to form or conceive in the mind; contrive; plan

According to wikipedia,

As a verb, “to design” refers to the process of originating and developing a plan for a product, structure, system, or component with intention

Laying it on a spectrum, it would come between arts and engineering. And by arts and engineering I don’t mean the crafts associated but the philosophies. The philosophy of art would be, what someone does with his senses which has an affect on others’ senses. Also if pure art is defined strictly, it would also mean that it is made with no prior intention. If even an iota of intention comes into art it becomes a design/applied arts.This diagram shows what design encompasses. It has components of arts as well as components of engineering.

For example, if an artist is hired to create a painting to be hung in the lounge of 5 star hotel. The interior decorator tells the artist, that the painting should evoke a sense of calm, and zen simplicity, which are the key components of that hotel’s brand. If the artist then paints something keeping in mind those two points, then he becomes a designer. The same situation could have been handled by the interior decorator by browsing through various art galleries and finding a painting which has all those qualities. And that painting might have been painted with no intention, and strictly by what the artist felt at that moment. Then that would be pure piece of art. Now when someone sits in this lounge and admires the painting, there’s no telling which of the two cases the painting came into being. What I want to illustrate is that the border between fine art and design is very vague, many a times undiscernable.

Let’s see the other end, that of engineering. An engineer has a problem at hand. Say for example to build a skyscraper of such height. Now he goes about it by seeing what are the other constraints and conditions. Is the architect insisting on using glass? What is the wind velocity, at such heights? How does the terrain lie, is it swampy? or rocky? A good engineer(noun) would then engineer(verb) a solution which lies under all constraints and stands well under the considered conditions. Here the designer is the architect. He would also have got a few constraints given to him from the developer. That the skyscraper should invoke a feeling of might. That it should look sleek. From these abstract constraints to the low level details like who would be the people using it. For what purpose? etc. The number of variable conditions the architect must consider is really high. And there is no textbook which has all of them. Strictly speaking the way the engineer and the architect differ as:

  • architect: He has to define all the problems, keeping in mind the variable number of conditions. there may be cases where he has to decide not to handle a particular problem because the chances of it occuring are low. Also he has to have a top level understanding of what is possible with engineering, and not give over the top designs which would become nightmares for the engineers.
  • engineer:he has to work with the architect, stopping him in his tracks if he goes on a creative picnic. and to get a workable design with detailed specific plans. He then uses his mathematical, mechanical and construction knowledge to execute those designs into a real thing.

The architect in the above example can be replaced by the term designer and this example would hold true in almost all fields. From my personal experience the strengths of each is:

  • Designer: Empathy (feels for other peoples, their strengths and weeknesses), the ability to see one problem from multiple perspectives, to weed out the irrelevant problems, and to break one big problem into small easy problems.
  • Engineers:To get a very efficient solution for a problem, but if the designer has not defined the problem well that solution is unusable by a large section of people. (take for example many open source projects – which are over-engineered and under-usable)

So the designer and engineer make a sort of yin-yang pair. A good designer would need a good engineer to execute his design. And vice a versa.

This is the first post in the series. And I may have my thoughts in a twist at some places, so your opinion would be highly welcome. I would keep updating/editing this post.

6 Replies to “What is design?”

  1. see this, a link to something I wrote a while ago on another blog
    http://vinaymohanty.com/?p=1220

    also, I think as you have rightly mentioned design is applied art. Art for a purpose.
    The goal of any design, is to create a happy customer base, thereby leading to increased sales and more profits for the business.

    When I talk to the uninitiated :),
    I use this example to demonstrate the difference between user centred design and engineering-design.

    Scenario: A company manufactures a mineral-water-bottle.It wants to increase its profits. What would you do ?

    Engineering-design answers: Make a better die, decrease wastage during manufacturing, have a more efficient assembly line, use a cheaper material and so on…

    All these answers are focused on increasing profits by reducing production costs. The engineer usually employs methods that deal with materials, technologies and proposes solutions that should be implemented before the bottle comes to market.An engineering problem mostly doesn’t take into account the touch point of a product with a customer.

    Contrast this with a

    User-centred answer: Increase sales by making the bottle stand out.

    A designer considers the end point of purchase. How does the user make a decision of which bottle to buy in a bevy of competing bottles ? Can we design a graphic or a form that would make the bottle catch the customer’s attention ? Can I make this bottle more ergonomic and easy to carry and fill water ? how will the user drink water, will she pour it into a glass or should we provide a nozzle?

    In all of the above, a designer considers the user and her interaction with the bottle a very important factor. Typically, the engineer doesn’t do that.

    I think maybe that is where we get user-centred-design from.

  2. i agree about the engineering design and the user centered design. only thing is this is not a 0/1 case. What if the user experience guy designs a bottle which is great to look at, has great ergonomics, everything that is desired, only to make it would mean a 25% increase in the cost of production. or rather the extreme case of it not being possible. if the user expereince designer also has some basic engineering design knowledge, then this case won’t arise.

  3. yes, a designer needs to understand the material and the domain. However, you can’t expect to be equally good at everything, so a designer should be willing to find a middle ground by talking to people who are experts in their own areas( engineering, sales etc.)

    This consensus building and ability to learn new things is another must-have skill in a designer.

  4. i totally agree with the idea of “ability to learn new things”. along with that their also has to be willingness and initiative to be able to learn new things.
    also as you said marketing or selling your design is also essential. but it’s a double edged sword too, as in a bad designer could be a good marketeer or seller and thus sells his design.

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