Design Defined

Last year I shared a paper I had originally published in 2002 attempting to define design in response to the discipline’s increasing popularity as a cultural as well as commercial force. It was clear to me in 2002 that design would eventually evolve beyond a discipline and be recognized as the fundamental means by which human intention is brought to reality, serving as the driver of innovation.

Since then, a number of books have been published on the thinking behind design without actually defining the thinking or the act of design in a coherent manner.

To date, no clear definition of design exists beyond the textbook definition posed by Merriam-Webster, and don’t even get me started on Design Thinking. This lack of clarity is understandable given that for the past century design has been the domain of creatives who by their very nature despise linguistic clarity when they can just as easily show us what design is without having to tell us. This, I understand, having graduated from design school without ever being provided with a coherent definition of design. Unfortunately, not all design efforts manifest visually if you consider the design of a health care policy, for instance.

Realizing that the notion of design would ultimately go mainstream, in 2002 (six years after graduating from design school) I set it upon myself to become a student of design for the sake of explaining the process behind it to those outside of the discipline who [like it or not, know it or not] design daily without any formal training — or worse yet, are charged with managing designers or design teams without any knowledge or appreciation of design.

I last defined design as a creative problem solving process. Since then, I have continued to think on the matter. I return to my original definition confident that it was a good start of an unfinished sentence. Today I complete that sentence, offering my definition of design as follows:

Design is a creative problem solving process that brings attention, care and sophistication to the realization of ideas.

Below is an explanation of the nine key words in the above definition:

  1. Creative: We all have unique life experiences. Each of us is capable of drawing upon our unique world view – which translates into our uniquely creative point of view. Creativity is at the heart of this life experience. It is a divine tool that can change the world and is available to us all.
  2. Problem: Problems, obstacles and challenges confront us all, and we have the opportunity to draw upon our uniqueness and creativity to overcome them all – turning adversity into opportunity. For every problem, obstacle and challenge, there are as many possible solutions as there are unique points of view.
  3. Solving: We apply our creativity – in the form of conceptual ideas – to resolve the problems, obstacles and challenges at hand.
  4. Process: Upon testing our concepts, we either decide that they successfully solve our problems, obstacles and challenges – thereby concluding the process; or decide that they do not – thereby repeating the process until we arrive at a solution. This process is known as iteration — design is an iterative process.
  5. Attention: To solve a problem, we must first truly understand it, and this requires our commitment to get at the root of the problem by giving it our undivided attention. Haphazard solutions are the result of lackluster attention and a lack of dedication to understanding the true nature of the problem at hand.
  6. Care: We commit great care to the pursuits we are most passionate about. Care shows through in our attention to the little details others might take for granted. Care on behalf of a designer translates directly into the experience afforded by the design.
  7. Sophistication: Leaving a positive imprint on the memory of those exposed to a design demands a level of sophistication far beyond the mundane. There are a number of ways to convey sophistication — from the delivery of refined simplicity to the flair of cutting edge. Sophistication is what allows us to set our work apart from others while tugging at the heartstrings of our audience.
  8. Realization: Our creative and strategic vision leads us ultimately to a point at which our goal is realized as a result of the design process. This almost magical act of making is the alchemy afforded by the design process.
  9. Ideas: If design is the driver of innovation, ideas are the fuel of design. Every step of the design process requires ideas — sometimes fresh and other times tried and true. While execution is certainly an aspect of design, ideas are what make design an art — a manifestation of human intention.

I will continue to monitor my craft and — who knows — I might revisit this definition in another decade. Such is the iterative nature of design and I am its humble servant.

Further Reading:

On Design Thinking

Redefining Design.
From occupation to driver of innovation.

The Purpose of Design

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