Design's Reach: Let's Begin a Dialogue

Design. Everyone seems to know about it. Some discredit it as superficial, while others crave it as a lifestyle. Business can be perplexed by it or harness its power. Not even designers can agree on its meaning.

It's no wonder the design profession can't get its story to the world straight. It was much easier thirty years ago we could simply tell the story about our process of sketching and model-making that led to more beautiful and desirable objects. But now, any story focused on "objects" doesn't begin to tell the story of design's expansive reach… both outward to every aspect of our lives, and, most especially, inward to our hearts.

To begin with, defining "design" today is a real challenge. Perhaps this is because we, as a profession, have never taken the time to design our profession. By not presenting a clear definition to the world, we end up latching onto the term of the year. First it's "Innovation." Then it's "Transformation." Who knows what's next? I'm not complaining, mind you. These are all meaningful and valuable terms. But why not simplify it all back down to the term "design?"

What I'm proposing is a more rudimentary and primal discussion. Designers embody a very special and unique confluence of culture, talent, thought, and process. Indeed, the interdisciplinary nature of design may be the reason behind the profession's lack of coherent messaging. Design is not one single thing. It encompasses all of the above and more.

In truth, design is not about creating products or interactions. It's not even about the experience of using designed objects. It's about the emotion evoked by the design. But here's the key—it's not how you feel about the design, it's how the design makes you feel about yourself. Does the Urbanspoon app on my iPhone make me feel empowered? Does impossible-to-open packaging make me feel like an idiot? For better or worse, the real effect of everything we design is emotion. When we truly understand this, we can focus on creating designs that make people feel good about themselves. Because these are the designs people love. They're the designs people talk about. They're the designs that build brands. By creating designs that make people feel better about themselves, we can extend the reach of design even further.

My goal for this blog is to begin a dialogue that examines and explores design's reach. To get the conversation started, perhaps you could share an instance where design has made you feel in some way—good or bad—about yourself.

Read more of Ravi Sawhney's Design Reach blog

Ravi Sawhney is the founder and CEO of RKS, a global leader in strategy, innovation, and design.

Since founding RKS nearly 30 years ago, Sawhney has earned a variety of top honors in the design industry, and assembled a client list that includes HP, Intel, LG, Medtronic, Seiko, Sprint, and Zyliss, among many others. In the process, RKS has helped generate more than 150 patents on behalf of their clients.

In 2004 Sawhney was named chairperson of the Industrial Design Excellence Award program, where he created the IDSA/BusinessWeek Catalyst award for products that generate measurable business results. Most recently, he was named Executive Director of Catalyst to direct its evolution into a program to develop case studies illustrating design's power to effect positive change.

Sawhney also invented the popular Psycho-Aesthetics® design strategy, which Harvard adopted as a Business School Case Study. He is a regularly featured lecturer at Harvard Business School, USC's Marshall School of Business, and UCLA's Anderson School of Business, where he teaches this business-driven design tool.

In addition to RKS, Sawhney has played an integral part in the founding of several other businesses, including Intrigo, an innovative computer accessory company; On2 Better Health, a health products company; and RKS Guitars, best known for its reinvention of the electric guitar.

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  • John Cady

    As I'm covering in an upcoming book, Everything Is Storytelling, emotional response is a sophisticated memory / behavioral guidance tool and, as you point out, is the soul of design. Why we do what we do is increasingly more important than what we do. Design is to commerce as directing is to film/tv, how the story is told has just as much impact on the emotional response of the consumer as the story itself.

    To use a storytelling/commerce/cooking metaphor, the script/company is the recipe, the actors/product are the ingredients, and the director/design are the chef; there's not much the chef can do with rotten ingredients or a bad recipe, however great ingredients and recipes don't combine themselves into a sublime dish. The director/design is essential to creating emotional response in the consumer.

    Design hasn't been clear at all about its constituents, but I have created the Cady Usability Matrix (which can be seen at to create clarity around User Experience Design -- would love your opinion.