What Do We Mean When We Talk Design?

The word design is all over the place; what does it mean? In this new series, I walk you through what design is, how it works, how to do it, and explain why you’re already a designer and how to become better at it.

My mother recently told me that every time she hears the word design she thinks of me.

She added, “We still don’t know what you do.”

I don’t think my mother’s knowledge of my vocation is because I’ve been particularly terrible at communicating my work, rather, it’s tied to the word design. It’s hard to dispel the myths — or at least partial truths, misleading assumptions, or caricatures — of design. For that reason, having a son who does behavioural and strategic design seems baffling.

For a word that is so widely mentioned, there are a lot of misconceptions about it and what design means for people.

What’s in a Word?

The word design is often conflated with aesthetics (making things look attractive), style (picture: a Paris runway during Fashion Week) or particular forms of design (e.g., interior design, architecture). All of these are correct in some way, but they are far from complete and thus can create inaccurate portraits of a highly diverse field of practice.

That field — defining its boundaries and scope — is what I did my final project on when completing my Master’s degree in design at OCADU. I was interested in how design is organized, communicated, and understood. Rather than develop a design taxonomy, I hoped to make sense of the various functions in which the term serves and represents design activity. I will explain this in more detail in the future.

Let’s say it involves imagining, thinking, and making.

Imagination, Thinking and Making

At its core, design is about blending imagination, thinking, and making things while considering the aesthetics, forms, and functions of what we create. We design things to improve situations, solve problems, and explore alternatives.

When I want something different or change and don’t have the solution in front of me, I need to design.

Design can be something we create as a product, a service, a program, a policy, or a way of organizing ourselves. What’s critical is that design is intentional. We might not get what we expect, but if we plan to create something and see it through, we are designing.

We are all designers

This is why we all are designers.

At the same time, we are not all skilled designers. I would put more confidence in Martha Stewart to design a social event and meal than my friend, who has never cooked a thing and doesn’t enjoy hosting people. This is where training, experience, the appropriate tools, and the means of thinking about design situations come in.

Not all designers possess all of these things, but like many areas of skill, the more of these present, the greater the likelihood that you’ll achieve something desirable.

Pathways of Design

While there is a pathway to design, it is — like many great journeys — open to many avenues. When you look up design, you’ll see all kinds of ideas about (end) users. Terms like user-centred design or human-centred design reflect that most of the time, we are designing for a person or group facing a situation. However, what we make- almost everything we encounter around us, products, communities, and even landscapes– affects our world.

Designers like Bruce Mau have sought to advance the idea of life-centred design instead. Many of our designs have damaged the climate, human health and well-being, and the natural world around us. His approach suggests we need to consider designing for all of life, not just the human part of life.

I have taken it a bit further and used the term design for living systems. Why? Because our choices for creating things affect the environments we live in and that interaction includes everything we touch — living or not — as part of an ecosystem.

But don’t get hung up on names. Design is about applying creativity to our situations and taking a journey from our present situation to something better, different, healthier, or happier. When done well, Design makes that journey more enjoyable and the outcomes more attractive.

Now that you’re a designer, what will you make next?

In our future posts, we’ll look at this in more detail. Thanks for reading — go out there and make something.

Image Credits: Author and  Med Badr Chemmaoui via Unsplash

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