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How Should We Define "Design"?

I just came back from Denmark where my client, Better Place, received the INDEX Community design award for creating a complete electric vehicle services system. It was an amazing ceremony and the Danish organizers ran a flawless design gathering both in content and in spirit. I truly enjoyed it!

Better PlaceHowever, I returned a bit conflicted after talking to many designers and participants from across the globe. There is a feeling of confusion around INDEX's definition of design, and how it reflects current trends in the design world.

Over dinner, Chris Bangle, the former chief of BMW's design group, expressed concern whether any bright idea for solving a social problem, is by definition "design." At a different event, industrial and furniture designer Hella Jongerius suggested to me that a different object—itself an award winner—had 'too little' design. Or does 'design' imply something new or different than before?

kivaAlice Rawsthorn covered the conference for the International Herald Tribune, and had some interesting observations about this "new design," among them the acknowledgement that other factors, such as financial resources and political clout are also necessary for even the most clever design solution to get traction.

Based on this, one may ask few interesting questions:

  1. Is there truly a "new design" phenomenon?
  2. Is any idea, whether it's an initiative for social progress or a clever way to market movies, enough to be declared a work of design?
  3. Can a construct such as a "process," "business plan" or a "system" be work of design?
  4. Lastly, are these metaphysical constructs always design or is there a threshold of beauty, a rigorous process, or another quality standard that must be met for something to be considered a design? In other words, is a 'business plan' always a form of "new design" or does it have to involve some level of good, "old fashioned" design to be considered more than an ordinary business plan? And, if the latter, what are the requisite elements that would distinguish one from the other?

What do you think? Should "design" be better defined?

[Images: INDEX winners Better Place and]

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Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.

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  • Erik Stolterman

    I think these are questions that constantly have to be revisited and interpreted in relation to the present time. However, I would like to propose that anyone interested in defining design should engage with the scholarly work that actually do exist today. Over the last 10-15 years we have seen a growth of intellectual development around the understanding of design. In the same way as anyone trying to understand any other discipline we should read the core literature. For instance if anyone is in sociology, it is a good idea to read Weber, Durkheim, Marx, Simmel, etc. For anyone interested in design, it is a good idea to read, among others these books:
    Donald Schön, "The Reflective Practitioner",
    Nigel Cross, "The Desinerly Way of Knowing"
    Klaus Krippendorff, "The Semantic Turn--a new foundation for design"
    Bryan Lawson "How Designers Think"
    Lawsoon & Dorst, "Design Expertise"
    Nelson & Stolterman "The Design Way"
    These books are all examples of serious treatments of design as an activity. They are all recent and even if they do not form a overall accepted understanding of design, they all point in a similar direction and are a great foundation for anyone who tries to define design.

  • Julietta Cheung

    The criticism and answers everyone has posted drive right back to a philosophical question about ontology and aesthetics. Conceptual Art asked “what is art?” Here, we’re asking the same about design.

    What would be the cultural and social impact if we opened up the definition of design?

    Some in the design profession fear it would lead to their disciplines devolving in quality and integrity. Others see a chance to explore a much larger playing field and be afforded opportunities to contribute and collaborate. If design was to remain cloistered in traditional definitions, the evolution of design in all disciplines would remain incremental and in some ways passive. But if we embrace this trend of design thinking, the positive impact could be far-reaching. Design school grads can get a Masters in Economics and practice Business Design—that can help transform the way ideas are developed in the business world. Engineers, urban planners, political scientists, social scientists, information designers and so on can collaborate on solving some of the major problems the world is facing within a design framework. They already are and that’s good news for humanity.
    For anyone who loves life and loves “design,” the more open and fluid design becomes, the more it will be vital and more so to the way we live.

    Calling certain frameworks “design” doesn’t mean that all collaborators have visual or other artistic abilities. Design is similar to Aesthetics—there is beauty, rigor, and quality in all fields of conceptual thinking. It boils down to the way ideas are reasoned, constructed, articulated, and the way they engage the world around us. In the way it all comes together and the way this impacts related things and people, I see beauty and I am certain I have company.

  • Markus Peschl

    I suggest to go one step further in this discussion: design is about (new) products, services, processes, structures, settings, etc. What is common to this diversity of "design results": they have something which goes beyond the expected, the obvious, which has a certain aesthetic value,...

    Instead of trying to identify these attributes which "go beyond" or which are "special", perhaps it would be helpful to take a closer look at what is behind or what is the source of these attributes: i.e., the processes bringing forth "designerly" results.

    It is a special way of knowing, cognition, doing things -- perhaps well captured in the concept of design thinking or well described in Glanville (2007; reference see below). A special kind of cognitive processes seem to lie at the heart of design; they are leading to a whole variety of results which can cover an extremely wide range; what unifies them is this special way of knowing, thinking, and doing -- in order to get closer to a definition of design it is worth studying these processes rather than their results only.

    Glanville, R. (2007. Try again. Fail again. Fail better: the cybernetics in design and the design in cybernetics; Kybernetes. The Internationald Journal of Systems and Cybernetics 36 (9/10), 1173–1206.

  • Ricardo Sosa

    "Can a construct such as a "process," "business plan" or a "system" be work of design?"

    Of course! If there is any doubt, it's only a sign of the old guard dying. Remember Kuhn: when paradigms break down, crises emerge and the community reassembles around new evidence and the new constellation of beliefs, values and tools. Naturally, the 'new paradigm' is not as neat and sharpen as some would like, but this will happen eventually.

  • Jason Cooper

    ”I’ve always believed that the life of a designer is a life very much between two sets of sensibilities, that of the business man and that of the artist.”- Milton Glaser

    I've spent the last 3 years of my design education trying to work out what design is, what it means to me and how this will shape my career. I'm yet to find an answer.

    I feel its this artist sensibility that Glaser mentions that results in design vague and varied definition. To me design is best defined with actions as opposed to words. I hope I never find the answer, and doubt I ever will.

  • Josh Jeffryes

    A word that means everything means nothing.

    That's where design is today. It has hundreds of meanings, with only a minimal overlap.

  • Lisa Galley

    For our work, interaction design principles are fused with finance to create green finance plans, products, models. We talked about it recently in Sustainable Industries as "convergence". So, yes,to answer the author's question -- in our view, processes, business plans and systems are works of design equal with buildings, products, art, etc.

  • Nathaniel Salzman

    I think that design is ultimately the intersection of functional problem solving and artistic sensibility. At present, just about anything remotely creative is being referred to as design, and not for the better. The word has been hijacked, in my opinion, to also add faux credibility to ideas whether they're creative or not. People say design when what they really mean is style or aesthetic pleasure or simply clever. Many people call themselves designers when in fact, they are at best decorators and at worst amateurs with working knowledge of the tools of design but not the methods and not enough experience to tell good from bad. There's nothing wrong with being a decorator, but the discipline is distinct from design in my opinion. I'm grateful that we live in a culture that is ever growing in its appreciation of creativity and therefore design. But where everyone should feel free and encouraged to be creative, that doesn't automatically make everyone a designer. Yet we now have whole professions that have been relabeled. Interior decorators, for example, are now called interior designers, yet the discipline hasn't evolved that I can tell. I don't in any way intend to demean interior decorators, as it's a highly creative and difficult discipline that I am admittedly awful at. However, there is an actual design discipline that deals with interior spaces — what used to be known as environmental design. It and interior decorating are not one and the same, and that's okay. There is a lot of overlap between design and decoration, obviously, but pure design is a more focused discipline that I believe lies in the sweet spot between artist and engineer.

    I think that what ultimately suffers from the overuse and misuse of the word design is the actual design profession and those who carefully practice it. Compared to other professional disciplines, I don't think that design gets the respect it deserves. There is a perception that anyone and everyone is a designer, and this simply isn't true. What's worse is that this mindset creates the attitude that design is purely subjective, which it isn't. Anyone can certainly be creative, and the more the better. However, becoming an actual designer requires education, experience, mentorship, effort, focus, time, and most importantly talent. To draw a parallel, I play the piano, the guitar, the basoon, and even dabbled with the oboe at one point. But I am NOT a musician. Not even close. Reading medical textbooks or scouring WebMD does not make me a doctor. Likewise just because I have a Mac or Photoshop — because I have access to the tools of design — that is not what makes me a designer.

    Design is first and foremost a process — a process unique and freeform and individual to the talents of each designer. Design also has, not rules per say, but underlying principles of good composition and use. Design is also highly focused on purpose and function. This is the key factor that distinguishes design from decoration. Decoration may very well make something better looking or even truly beautiful — and in the process make something work a little better or be a bit more accessible. Design makes something more functional precisely because of its beautification. That also distinguishes design from say, engineering, where something is made better in ways that have nothing to do with its beauty.

    The business world is learning that designers — talented people who practice this way of thinking and working — have valuable insights into all aspects of making their products and their business better. This has been referred to mostly as "design thinking" and it's a trend that I think will only grow and all for the better. The benefit there, in my opinion, is that designers have cultivated a very unique way of thinking that is going to see solutions far outside the box of the traditional MBA mindset. However, I think that otherwise simply creative solutions are getting called "design" which isn't really accurate. I don't think that they need that label to be valuable or considered innovative. It's okay not to be a designer. It's perfectly fine to be an engineer, a decorator, a business manager, an accountant, or an artist.

    The last point I'll make is that the growing use of "crowdsourcing" and especially its speculative nature is a particularly insidious trend in design today. Beyond the commoditization and devaluation of professional design work, the expectation it sets for the quality of the end work is greatly diminished. If you wouldn't pay one amateur designer $1,000 to design your logo on his or her own, why would you put that project in the hands of an amateur hive mind? I can't help but feel like the overall quality of creative work in general is going down because these sorts of amateur-produced works are being accepted into the marketplace as "good enough" and end up lowering the bar for what good design should look like in the eyes of people who really didn't know in the first place (which is why they're hiring it out). I hope that going forward, the business world will see design more as an investment where long-term quality will pay off better than short-term cheap and crappy solutions. As in so many things, expertise really does add value.

  • Nicolae Halmaghi

    A few years back I questioned whether Hella Jongerius’ and Droog’s design belonged to the design world. The work was too close to “art”. Five years later I became a passionate fan of her work and the DesignArt movement.

    The current situation of design reminds me very much of the way the fashion world operates. What is shown on the runway as Haute Couture, is an inspiration to what is to come…it mirrors and amplifies a direction of “something” to come.

    Other creative disciplines had to face the same dilemmas once a certain tipping point was reached. Similar questions emerged:
    Was the Dada movement "real" art?
    Did Minimalism reduce art to nothing?
    Did we send the cleaning lady who cleaned up a pile of grease at a Joseph Beuys museums exhibition to jail, because in her eyes it was garbage?
    Could Samuel Becket's work be filed under “literary work”?

    The design discipline, as a whole, is going through a major overhaul. Fortunately the borders are expanding. Not a bad thing… Eventually things will filter and crystallize into that “something”, or as my friend Marcel Wanders says; “Design is the unexpected welcome”

    Great post. Thanks for challenging our thoughts. Now I have to go and “re-design” my lunch appointment…

  • Jeff Oeth

    Design is all of the above. If a situation needs more clarification, simply add a descriptor in front of the word. (graphic, industrial, architectural etc.)

  • Rupa Chaturvedi

    Interesting perspectives - thanks for sharing. Many of the traditional services are going through a change of defition due to trends in technology, consumer behaviour and shifts in values. So why can't design be more encompassing? Design can solve social problems and this approach has resulted in several innovative products that are improving lives sometimes saving them! Ideo's HCD tool kit is another example - is that classified as Design? Well, why not?