Developing Our Language of Design

Design has its own distinct language, which is tied to how it’s organized. What does it mean to talk about design, do design, and speak about design products? In today’s post, we speak to the language of design.

Every field of practice has its own language. Within the field are disciplines and sub-disciplines, and they have a distinct language, too. Understanding how to speak this language is essential to understanding Design and what it does.

In our earlier posts in this series, I introduced you to the field of Design. This field is characterized by ways of imagining, thinking, and making. It’s with these three words that we’re going look into this field and figure out what it’s saying.

Imagination Realized

Imagination is the process of envisioning ways to see a problem or situation anew. Imagination is a core part of creativity, that vital yet nebulous activity that converts our thoughts and dreams into something. That something might be nonsensical, metaphorical, literal in its framing, or fantastical. Every great work of art, designed space, and innovation emerged from our imagination, from the first shoe to the latest in AI-driven chatbots.

Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller argue that imagination is required for success in times of turbulence, which is what some argue is here to stay. As they say below, it is also difficult to sustain when there is pressure to be ‘practical.’

We believe imagination — the capacity to create, evolve, and exploit mental models of things or situations that don’t yet exist — is the crucial factor in seizing and creating new opportunities, and finding new paths to growth. Imagination is also one of the hardest things to keep alive under pressure.

Martin Reeves and Jack Fuller, HBR (2020)

Reeves and Fuller’s definition points to how our imagination allows us to creatively generate something new, modify something that exists, or adopt new ways of seeing, sensing, conceiving or organizing ideas. Designers do all of this in trying to

Some of this work is done through design research — investigating the situation and phenomena we are looking to change through our designs. Some of it is done through creative exercises, reflective practice, and simple observation. Much design work involves collaborative, interactive discussions between members of the design team and the intended users or beneficiaries of the design. There are no single paths to imagination, nor is there a limit on where it can go.

Everyone is imaginative, although some are more active in their imagination. Some people are also better at using words, visual images, or activities to articulate what they see, feel, envision, and sense. Not all of us have the language to describe what goes on in our minds and bodies to others. Designers often act as facilitators in working with others. Facilitation and event organization is a big part of my work as part of what’s needed to help people express themselves and tap into their imagination.

Tools like sticky notes, whiteboards, markers, toys (like Play-Doh or Lego or the amazing ones that 21Toys creates for this purpose), cards, or craft supplies can help stoke imagination. Anything that can help relax or stretch our minds will work.

And it’s in our minds where we begin to think about thinking.

Thinking About Design

Anyone thinking about innovation has heard of design thinking. Design Thinking (in both caps and lower case) is a collection of methods, tools, and approaches associated with using our imagination to support innovation. It has been described as everything as a means to support non-designers to design to outright bullshit.

I’m not interested in the hype about design thinking. Nor do I care much for those who argue there is a right way to do it or a specific definition. I also don’t pay much attention to the designers who mock and denigrate design thinking, which is mostly arrogance dressed up as critique.

Unfortunately, this stuff matters (enough that I’ll do a separate post on it later in the series). Why? Because the language we use to describe design thinking is tied to whether we 1) believe its real, 2) can ascertain what it is, and 3) see benefits for those use it.

Design thinking is a cluster of activities, mental models, and approaches that bring knowledge, perception, skill, and motivation together to create useful things. It’s what designers do. And as I’ve argued previously: we are all designers.

Design Thinking is relevant because it makes this design process more explicit, which means it can be taught, learned, enhanced, and illustrated to those outside the design process. It’s a way of taking some of the mystery out of design and revealing how the magic is done. (That’s one reason why many designers dislike the term.) This is what is behind the image above: the design helix. It’s a model to explain and illustrate the design thinking process, yet it’s not a prescription. It’s designed to help people explain and use the language of design in their creative work.

The Language of Design Thinking

One are of criticism I share with these designers is that the language of design thinking is rather odd and has this ‘made up’ quality. Here are some of the terms you’ll see in design thinking:

1. Ideation. Basically, this means the process of generating ideas, working through them, and sorting and selecting them. Ideation encompasses processes often lumped under brainstorming and involves looking at the information you have available and using imagination to conceive of options. It’s commonly done in a way that seeks many options which will then be winnowed, sorted and selected for consideration. This is tied closely to imagination.

2. Sensemaking: This is something commonly done after ideation and involves working through what you find, stepping back, and literally finding ways it makes sense. It might involve connecting ideas together, exploring gaps in understanding, and matching what we develop with our situation. This is closely connected to thinking.

3. Prototyping: This is the process of taking our ideas and constructing a workable model that we can test and potentially deploy in a controlled, limited setting. This is where imagination and thinking are transformed into making. It’s not design if we don’t make something — even if that “thing” is speculative.

4. Evaluation. The most commonly ignored and neglected aspect of design is evaluation. This systematic assessment of our design in the world involves understanding what our creations do, what they influence, and what kind of impact they have. Designers often ignore evaluation and see their remit as creating things; however, responsible designers know they bear some responsibility for their creations. Evaluation helps us know what those creations do and how they affect things in the world.

I’ll cover the hows of design thinking in a future post and will refer you to the model below as an example of terms, concepts and ideas associated with design thinking.

Critical Design: When Speculation Meets Imagination

Critical Design is the third design pillar and might be the least known and the most interesting. Critical Design encompasses the more fantastical elements of design and focuses more on what could be over what is. This domain is where things like Foresight and Futures come into play. It’s also where there is the tightest coupling of design with art.

Critical design primarily focuses on design’s conceptual, speculative, or hypothetical aspects. Anthony Dunne first coined the term, and my conception is built on that. The language is more about ideas and possibility and less about function, use, and fit.

Critical design stretches our thinking from the present situation to envision what might be possible. It’s not about building something practical in the short term; it’s about conceptualizing ways of seeing and planning for the future.

We’ve seen this in technology where ideas for what could be (e.g., self-driving cars, tablet computers, vaccines) are envisioned before they are developed. We’ve also seen this in social situations with things like Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, where he speaks of many — not all (there’s much more to be done)— of the future realities around social justice.

The systematic practice of extending our thinking beyond the constraints of our present situation is what pushes designers to create things that stretch the limits of our present reality. The language of critical design includes terms like:

1. Futures. The term plural because the future is always in motion. Futures engages us in considering how what’s happening today might manifest outcomes in the years to come. Futures study and practice commonly employs more speculative, imaginative, and fantastical elements in them than foresight (which we’ll cover next) to provoke conversation and discussion about the future we want. It also helps us envision what we might wish to avoid.

2. (Strategic) Foresight. This is the sibling of Futures and is a design practice that connects data (trends, forecasts, social systems research) and employs design methods and tools to develop scenarios and other products. Strategic foresight is similar to futures in that they help us craft a vision of what might be, but foresight is generally more pragmatic. Its aim is to help us make strategic decisions about what we can do now and in the near, middle, and long term to realize specific goals and outcomes. This is why foresight usually has the term ‘strategic’ attached.

3. Speculative Design & Fiction. This third aspect of critical design is less bound by data and veers closer to art. It’s what is closer to Anthony Dunne’s original concept of critical design noted below.

Critical Design is speculative, conceptual, provocative, and can be darkly satirical. It does not always lead to usable products, but it does produce long-term thinking, a nuanced view of consumers as complex, contradictory individuals, and alternative solutions suggesting that change is always possible, even inevitable.


Speculative design and fiction often include elements of foresight and futures work and blend it with fiction or fantasy. This isn’t to render the work impractical; rather it is a way to help us conceive possibilities that have not yet existed. Consider how current mobile handsets like the iPhone bear no resemblance to the household telephone of the 1960s. Speculative design can help us to imagine what these seemingly fantastical ideas could look like. Just as AI-powered tools are writing text today might have seemed fantastical at the time when people thought the total computer market was limited to a few dozen per year.

Lastly, critical design is also a domain of playfulness, such as the Nifty Fish developed by Art & Science, an interactive exhibit that allows people to design and ‘toss’ digital fish into a digital tank in the physical world (pictured above).

Speaking Design

To speak design, we have to learn a little about where it comes from and how it’s organized. But, because it is fundamentally a universal human quality, the specific terms matter very little as long as we can speak about what we want, what we need, what we use, and what we see. In doing that, we are speaking about design. The methods, the tools, and the processes will vary. They might be playful, but they could be serious. Our designs might be heavily influenced by data, use complex evaluation methods, or be based on the idea that — just like the image above captures — we can flick digital fish from our phone into a virtual fish tank across the room with a swipe of our finger.

The more comfortable we become with using our words and work to communicate, the more we can design better things. In the posts to come, we will delve further into these three realms of design and explore what they mean for everyday people. My hope is that this will help you become a better designer.

Image Credits: Cameron Norman.

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