What is design?

Try to explain one sentence: what is design? Thinking about the ethical responsibilities of designers, I need a precise definition of what design is. In this longish post I’ll show you my short answer.

Among other things, the word design commonly refers to:

  • The activity of designing
  • The design process: how that activity is structured
  • The results of that activity and process, the design

So what we really need to be clear on is what a design is. After checking a couple of sources, I found that Wikipedia’s is pretty useful and in line with my own experience:

A plan or specification for the construction of an object or system or for the implementation of an activity or process

A design is a plan to make something! Now that would be straightforward if there weren’t so many things that are just that, but that we don’t call a design. Like recipes. We don’t have to go through all exceptions, because for most you’d likely agree they’re (sidenote: But it’s odd, right? We don’t consider the recipes in cook books design, but you can very well create design for industrially produced food. Especially extruded and molded foodstuff, like candy. ) .

But there are things that overlap with design in ways that can be confusing, especially in art and engineering.

Design is not art

Oh boy, I really didn’t start this post to define art. But I have a definition that (sidenote: I realize now that in English art can have a broader meaning, like in artwork for the print on a lunch box. But I think that sort of thing is more of a secondary meaning. Here I’m talking about what in German and Dutch you’d call Kunst. ) for me:

Art is a creation of which the main purpose is to convey an emotion.

You see, that way I can nicely separate some things that are sometimes confused with art:

  • Entertainment, which artists sometimes create to make a living while practicing their skills
  • Kitsch, which imitates art, but is intended to be decorative or as a status symbol
  • Decoration, which is added to things to make them less ugly or boring, or do some cultural signaling. Decoration often occurs as part of a design

Once, when I was working as a freelance designer at a big corporation, a mid-level manager showed up to our team. With a big smile, he loudly asked “Hellooo, how are my artists doing!?” Painful. He didn’t just have no clue about design, but worse: he had no idea why art is made.

How do people like him get so confused? My guess it’s because designers and artists have several tools and skills in common. Designers use the same pencils, paper and markers that artists use. Both in art and design it’s common to make sketches and ever more detailed drawings before using botching up a big expensive piece of marble/injection molding steel.

Venn diagram of art and design with almost no overlap
Both artists and designers may (occasionally) use expensive pens and markers, but that hardly makes art and design overlap.
Venn diagram of art and design with almost no overlap
Both artists and designers may (occasionally) use expensive pens and markers, but that hardly makes art and design overlap.

Then why is design taught at art schools?

Designers and artists take inspiration from each other. Graphic arts and graphic design follow similar trends and movements. Art and design share a history. There is a whole art form of making objects mimicking useful products to make statements. This is the kind of design taught at art schools that in my view is really not design.

Then there’s the whole decorative design tradition that has solid roots in art. From back when the engineer build the steam engine and some artist was allowed to paint over it to make it pretty. Perhaps this is why so many still think design is there only to make things look good. But we’ve known for over a century now that good design is created when looks and function are developed together.

Design isn’t about just visual skills or making things nice. It can be about life and death. Think of airplane controls—’Human error’ as the cause for a plane crash is commonly the crew not handling signals as intended by the designers. Think of cars, playgrounds, toys. Would the Rohinga genocide have happened at this scale if it weren’t for fake news spreading on easy-to-use social platforms?

That’s why I believe it’s borderline criminal to teach people how to express themselves for a living and then tell them they’re a designer. Just so they can be hired by business people who just want to seduce people to use their products. Credits to Mike Monteiro for that conclusion.

Art is not part of design

If an artist makes sketches or a specification before creating the final piece, I’d also consider that design. The design of an artwork. But that doesn’t make all of art creation design and it definitely doesn’t make design art.

Design is not engineering

Engineering is about making technical machines or systems do something with a purpose. In product development, that purpose is creating products according to specifications.

Engineering takes a lot of time. More than design, usually. Production machines (whether they’re injection molding presses or servers) and the things they process and consume are expensive. So you save time and costs by having a plan—a design—before starting engineering.

But let’s be honest: some engineers can do a good bit of design too. After all, if design is about making the plan to produce something, what does the engineer do, taking over from the designer?

In (sidenote: That’s design of mass produced products. ) processes there’s a step where the technical drawings created by a designer are handed over to an engineer. The engineer then adds more details and improves them. Mainly to make sure the products don’t break during or after production. The activity of technical drawing looks just like the designer drawing, but the purpose there is to make sure that machines can build the product well.

Similarly, in web design a designer could specify components in CSS. The designer’s goal here should be an efficient handover of design specs to the engineer. But it’s still up to (sidenote: I’m not saying designers shouldn’t code. But when they do code for production, they’re no longer designing. ) to check that code’s validity and improve it where necessary before adding it to the production code: the instructions for users’ machines to present the product.

Sometimes design specs include instructions for machines. That doesn’t mean all of design is part of engineering though. The specification phase of a design can include machine instructions, but it’s not a given. And you can also create designs for handmade objects and services. Some design work is engineering, but the essence of design is not.

Venn diagram of engineering and design with some overlap
Sometimes designers and engineers share responsibilities for tasks. They should be aware of what tasks are design and what are engineering though.
Venn diagram of engineering and design with some overlap
Sometimes designers and engineers share responsibilities for tasks. They should be aware of what tasks are design and what are engineering though.

Copying products

Sometimes products are copied by companies that don’t have the original designs. I’d argue the act of creating plans to make copies is a form of engineering, not design. The people in charge of such an operation aren’t looking for a way to create a new solution for a problem. They don’t aim to improve the product or to solve an unsolved user problem (other than making it cheaper perhaps). They only want machines to imitate the original product. That’s engineering.

Design is not product management

In my line of work, a typical team has:

  • Designers
  • Engineers
  • Product managers
  • Business people

I’ve (sidenote: Except younger me, claiming Steve Jobs as part of the design tribe. ) met a person who confused business with design. But the borders between product management and design can sometimes be blurry.

Venn diagrams for PM and design both show overlap with engineering and business.
When explaining their job, product managers like to show a venn diagram that’s almost identical to the one about design.
Venn diagrams for PM and design both show overlap with engineering and business.
When explaining their job, product managers like to show a venn diagram that’s almost identical to the one about design.

In important part of product management is doing the planning around the creation of a new product. And if a design is a plan to make a product, aren’t product management and design almost the same?

The bare minimum of a design is a plan for the dimensions, appearance and behavior of a product once it’s in the user’s possession. It doesn’t necessarily include a plan for the development process. That’s where PM can come in. Product managers make temporal plans and processes. Product management is organizational.

I find the term product management somewhat confusing. It implies the PM’s attention goes to products. But product management doesn’t create the design or do engineering. It’s a facilitating function for the product team. Product development management would be a better term, except that product management deals with the whole lifecycle of a product, from conception to sales, marketing and recycling.

Anyway, one goal of product management is reducing development costs by making teams more efficient: a business function. And you wouldn’t confuse a business person with a designer, would you?

So, what is design?

With everything not design out of the way, I’d like to get to a more specific and practical definition of design. The section about engineering ended on a note about how copying a product is not design. If that’s true, then design is making a plan to create something new.

That something can solve a problem that hasn’t been solved before, or solve it in a new way. The engineering section also covered that engineering is about preparing machines to build something. That means that if you’re developing something to support machines, it’s part of engineering. And designing a part of a production machine is also engineering.

That means designers design (sidenote: If we design for nature, that’s usually in the context of engineering (making sure a pump doesn’t kill fish) or people (pet products) too. ) . Designers make sure a new service makes sense to the people they design for. That products have useful functions. That they’re pleasant to use. That they’re desired. Design is shorthand for user-centered design and user-centric design. That leads me to the following definition:

A design is a plan to make something new for people, that they perceive as beneficial.

Wait, why didn’t I just say “A design is a plan to make new useful things for people”? And what’s the difference between user-centered and user-centric design? Forget “Should designers code?” and skeuomorphism versus flat design. The difference between designing for users and designing for business, to users may be the most important issue ever to debate in design. But more about that in my post User-centered design versus user-centric design.

Wrap up

When you design, you’re doing all kinds of things, like:

  • User research
  • Analysing competing services
  • Getting (sidenote: The Dunning-Kruger effect is a quirk of our brains making us overestimate our abilities after learning a little bit about a topic. ) into believing you understand your target market
  • Writing on post-its
  • Sketching
  • Hanging out with engineers

Others see designers doing that and also see it in other professions. That sometimes confuses them. But only designers make the plan to build the new thing. That’s no one else’s job.

That said, design happens in many professions and not just in product development. Everything ever created has been designed. Sometimes consciously, at other times not so much.

Design makes products successful because going straight to engineering would almost certainly increase costs. Fixing a mistake in engineering costs about 10 times the amount of fixing a mistake in design. Fixing a mistake in in production costs about 100 times that.

But design is about more than reducing engineering costs. Designers create plans for products that people want, need and like. It gives purpose to production beyond market mechanics. And that while increasing sales and market value.

That’s what I’ll casually answer next time somebody asks me “So… what’s the ROI on design?”

Want to think further about what design is about? Here are six questions.