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Your Introduction to the Field of Design

Design is a field that brings together creation, imagination, and thinking about people and situations. When we learn how this field is organized, we’re better prepared for making things better.

Design’s a funny word.

As a verb, it describes an action of planning and creation. As a noun, it points to an entire field of practice. This ‘capital d’ version of Design is what I’m going to explore in this second article in a series on describing what design is all about.

This article is meant to provide an orientation to how design is organized and to help you to learn the language of what designers often call themselves.

D for Design and Discipline

‘Capital D design’, as I call it, refers to the disciplines where people practice and create. We know these often by the space they focus on (e.g., interior design or landscape architecture), the domain they work (e.g., digital or web Design), the function they serve (e.g., architecture, UX design), or by the things they create (e.g., service design). Some newer practice areas are more transdisciplinary in nature. For example, systemic design and strategic design on bringing multiple layers of theory, practice, and science together to design human systems and organizations.

Increasingly, these design disciplines are working beyond their traditional bounds to become more multi- and interdisciplinary. This means designers might be working on a digital tool (e.g., web design) that serves a strategic aim (strategic design) in helping transform a service (service design) to contribute to widespread systemic change (e.g., systemic design). We see this increasingly in social services and healthcare as they seek to make their offerings more accessible, equitable, and cost-effective, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Designers working within these disciplines typically engage in training — formal, practice-based, or otherwise – to learn conventions, craft, and theory. This is a form of design thinking — the way designers think and approach problems. Anyone who creates things with intent to make an addition, improvement or impact is a designer. For example, if you are creating a project website using a tool like Squarespace or WordPress, you are a web designer. Or someone creating a marketing flyer or infographic using a tool like Canva is engaging in graphic design.

Not all of these creations produce the kind of outputs or outcomes that a professional or trained designer might, but they are designed.

Practical Design

We design when we’re no longer content with what is and want what could be.

Design has particular salience in times of transition.

We design when our present circumstances and situations aren’t matched with our needs, wants, and aspirations. Put another way: we design when we’re no longer content with what is and want what could be.

Those circumstances and situations are increasingly complex in character, scale, and scope. The interconnections we find between our economies, cultures, families, and climate effects are visible everywhere. Complexity arises from these dynamic interactions and obscures connections between causes and consequences, usually requiring many different perspectives to address the situation. This means that designers are increasingly working together with each other or non-designers on their creations. This process is often called co-design, participatory design, or collaborative design and usually involves active involvement and sometimes leadership from those most affected by the issue or circumstance being addressed.

Viewing design as a field to address these challenges can help us frame the different facets of what design is.

Field of Dreams

A field is a collection of entities tied together somehow, and, in the case of design, this is a set of ways of imagining, thinking, and making things that enable people to go from what is to what could be.

The field of Design (using capitals) comes together because of an alignment of problems, methods, theories, and domains of practice. Cultural things like language, tools, and stance are things we associate with designers across different disciplines. These often enable designers (however defined) to find things to discuss with each other at parties and social events.

Isn’t this a bit academic? Yes and no. For most of us, how design is organized is of little interest and use most of the time. It matters more when we try to understand design problems and draw on reference sources for guidance and inspiration. The field of design is organized around three key aspects:

  1. Design Disciplines (the spaces, tools, requirements, and qualities of design work, often reflected in organizing professional design.)
  2. Critical Design (how designers envision problems, situations, and futures)
  3. Design Thinking (the ways of seeing, conceiving, processing, and addressing design issues in practice)

The relationship between them is illustrated below.

We can imagine plotting a project based on the degree it involves design disciplines, design thinking, and critical design. A designer draws on all three of these domains in creating their work; however, that work might draw differently on each domain. Where a work sits in relation to this system might be closer to one, two or all three.

It is within this field bordered by the connections between these three dimensions that creation takes place.

This is where the magic happens.

Magic To Impact

Designer Jon Kolko writes on the magic of design with his tongue partly stuck in his cheek. Design is part art, part science, and part craft. Craft is what separates designers — whether trained or not. Some people have a talent for design with little training. Others have degrees, apprenticeships, certifications, and job experience. It all counts.

The magic that Kolko refers to is the coming together of the three design domains to create something novel, improve on what we have, and make a difference. If a design is good, people are served and inspired. If there is no inspiration from a design — even a slight sense of it — change is unlikely, and improvements won’t be felt. Design serves our world, adds value, and contributes to our health when done ethically and responsibly. It also brings enormous power to bear on human potential — to heal and to harm. Climate change, war, and poverty are just some of the outcomes of human design choices that have had harmful effects. For that reason, designers bear a responsibility to use their talents appropriately.

Just as with Harry Potter stories, magic can be used for good and not.

As we continue our journey of Design, we’ll explore the methods, approaches, and ethics associated with making things and making a difference.

In the future articles on this series, we’ll explore this magical domain and take us further into this field of design.

Image credits: Cameron Norman and  Ales Krivec on Unsplash

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