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

Good Design Does Not Oversimplify

Sometimes simplicity and utility are diametrically opposed. The pursuit of aesthetics above all can lead to oversimplification through the sacrifice of utility in favor of simplistic purity. While the results may be celebrated by aesthetically minded critics, they do not represent the highest potential of design.

The challenge in producing good design is in discovering the harmonious balance between utility, simplicity, usability and beauty. Too much of one thing can sacrifice the other, ultimately sending the wrong message about what design is, what good design is and why its purpose is far more than decorative.

The Future of Self-Service Banking

For Spanish bank BBVA, IDEO examined the interaction experience of ATM’s, which has lagged dramatically behind the actual technology powering these machines. From simple yet impactful tweaks like 90-degree booth rotation for better privacy to cutting-edge customization software, the prototype — which took two years of development — offers a seamless, highly visual bridge between physical and virtual.

Great example of the design innovation process informed by ethnography.


Good Design

Good design results from a sensitive attention to — and expression of — subtleties.

Design Management

One can not begin to understand the role of Design Management — or its purpose — until one begins to understand the difference between the mundane and an experience.

If you are trying to achieve the mundane (starting at broken and going all the way up to undesirable and even forgettable), you do not need design, nor do you need Design Management.

The moment you decide that you want to go beyond the mundane, you must see beyond the singular act (of the transaction) and take note of the big, holistic picture that revolves around the experience of the act and all touchpoints concerned.

Each and every single facet of an experience needs to be contemplated — designed — for optimal performance. This is where design (at its best) comes in, and this is where enlightened management — hence Design Management — is critical.

Forget Design Management unless you strive for excellence. If you strive for excellence, be prepared to go far beyond the mundane — from the boardroom to the showroom.

Further Reading:

On Design Management

On Design Management

Without a solid design management team in place
charting a coherent design strategy,
all the design thinking in the world can’t save you.

And Lord help you if all you have is design styling.

For > (where > = greater than);

  • Design Management >

  • Design Strategy >

  • Design Thinking >

  • Design Styling

Further Reading:

Design Thinking is Dead. Long Live Design Orientation

Design Orientation is Not a Buzzword

Redefining Design
From occupation to driver of innovation

The Purpose of Design

Holistic Thinking

Beyond Design Thinking
It’s Called Design Management

Toward a Design Orientation

Nine months ago I wrote about Design Orientation as an alternative to Finance Orientation — the model which has governed business thinking for the past 50+ years.

Today, I read an amazing article in the Financial Times by John Kay, a member of the advisory board of the Institute for New Economic Thinking and simply had to share it because it represents the first truly honest step in coming to terms with the failed economic thinking, theories and policies that have driven the world to the edge of utter financial and socioeconomic collapse. I am happy to quote the article below and also link to the author’s original source page:

The macroeconomics taught in advanced economics today is largely based on analysis labelled dynamic stochastic general equilibrium. The unappealing title gives the game away: the theorists are mostly talking to themselves. Their theories proved virtually useless in anticipating the crisis, analysing its development and recommending measures to deal with it.

A remarkably distinguished group of economists gathered last weekend for the inaugural conference of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, an initiative of George Soros. They were soul searching over the failures of economics in the recent crisis. Such failures are most evident in two areas: the inadequacies of the efficient market hypothesis, the bedrock of modern financial economics, and the irrelevance of recent macroeconomic theory.

The central idea of the efficient market hypothesis is that prices represent the best estimate of the underlying value of assets. This thesis has recently taken a battering. The boom and bust in the money markets was precipitated by a US housing bubble. That bubble followed the New Economy fiasco and was preceded by the near-failure of Long Term Capital Management, a hedge fund designed to showcase sophisticated financial economics.

The macroeconomics taught in advanced economics today is largely based on analysis labelled dynamic stochastic general equilibrium. The unappealing title gives the game away: the theorists are mostly talking to themselves. Their theories proved virtually useless in anticipating the crisis, analysing its development and recommending measures to deal with it.

Recent economic policy debates have not only largely ignored DSGE, but have also been remarkably similar to the economic policy debates of the 1930s, although they have been resolved differently. The economists quoted most often are John Maynard Keynes and Hyman Minsky, both of whom are dead.

Both the efficient market hypothesis and DSGE are associated with the idea of rational expectations – which might be described as the idea that households and companies make economic decisions as if they had available to them all the information about the world that might be available. If you wonder why such an implausible notion has won wide acceptance, part of the explanation lies in its conservative implications. Under rational expectations, not only do firms and households know already as much as policymakers, but they also anticipate what the government itself will do, so the best thing government can do is to remain predictable. Most economic policy is futile.

So is most interference in free markets. There is no room for the notion that people bought subprime mortgages or securitised products based on them because they knew less than the people who sold them. When the men and women of Goldman Sachs perform “God’s work”, the profits they make come not from information advantages, but from the value of their services. The economic role of government is to keep markets working.

These theories have appeal beyond the ranks of the rich and conservative for a deeper reason. If there were a simple, single, universal theory of economic behaviour, then the suite of arguments comprising rational expectations, efficient markets and DSEG would be that theory. Any other way of describing the world would have to recognise that what people do depends on their fallible beliefs and perceptions, would have to acknowledge uncertainty, and would accommodate the dependence of actions on changing social and cultural norms. Models could not then be universal: they would have to be specific to contexts.

The standard approach has the appearance of science in its ability to generate clear predictions from a small number of axioms. But only the appearance, since these predictions are mostly false. The environment actually faced by investors and economic policymakers is one in which actions do depend on beliefs and perceptions, must deal with uncertainty and are the product of a social context. There is no universal economic theory, and new economic thinking must necessarily be eclectic. That insight is Keynes’s greatest legacy.

Design in Business

Design and business have traditionally made uneasy bedfellows, with practitioners of each eyeing each other suspiciously. But in recent years, some companies have demonstrated huge success by adopting a design-savvy approach. That’s led to a resurgence of interest in design as business strategy. There remains little agreement on the best policies, structures, or principles for its smart adoption and execution, however.

This panel, a continuation of swissnex San Francisco’s series on innovation, brings together those working on every side of the equation, from individuals implementing design within large corporations, to consultants aiming to bring an objective eye to their clients’ problems, to educators working to shape the future discussion.

With moderator Helen Walters, editor of innovation and design at Bloomberg/BusinessWeek; Helmut Traitler, V.P. of Innovation Partnerships at NESTEC Ltd., in Vevey, Switzerland; Udaya Patnaik, Jump founder and principal; Nathan Shedroff, chair of the MBA in Design Strategy at California College of the Arts; and Mary Jo Cook, Vice President of Discovery and Design for Clorox.

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You may find the following related post of interest:

On Design Thinking

Economists and Design

When the old ideas stop working, business must find new ones. So is the current economic slowdown a fantastic opportunity for design?
To find out, the Design Council and the Economist are bringing leaders from business and design together at a major conference in March 2010.

Beyond Design Thinking
It’s Called Design Management

Emotional Branding: the new paradigm for connecting brands to people by Marc Gobé begins with a very interesting Foreword by Sergio Zyman.

It’s only three pages long, but definitely worth reading to see why design thinking is the incorrect way to frame a very important and valid call for interdisciplinary collaboration between executives and creatives — which I believe ought to be the desired end game outcome of the current confused yet well-meaning narrative in design management (which — actually — is a much better and more holistic phrase than design thinking because it insinuates interdisciplinary collaboration — design and management coming together, as they should).

The challenge in design management is to train existing & future managers on the value of design, its strategic role in business decisions from the boardroom to the showroom and the role design / designers play in shaping and translating visionary strategy into desirable, meaningful, relevant, satisfying and memorable results.

This is the challenge facing design management, and it has less to do with thinking and more to do with learning, exposure and interdisciplinary collaboration between managers and designers on the road to transdisciplinary collaboration beyond management and design, inclusive of those in the sciences, arts and humanities — ultimately positioning business practice as a holistic representative of society at large.

You may find the following related post of interest:

On Design Thinking