What is design? A better definition for today’s world.

In my last article, I tried to clear up a common misconception about design through a helpful analogy to job interviews.

I also promised to share my definition of design — one that will (hopefully) end these misunderstandings once and for all — and this is it:

Design is the constructive process of identifying problems and moving towards solutions.

Short and sweet, isn’t it?

If there’s no problem to solve, then there’s nothing to design.

But if there is a problem to solve, and the design process either:

  1. doesn’t identify it, or
  2. doesn’t solve it, or
  3. makes it worse, or
  4. creates new problems,

then, frankly, it’s a pretty bad design that has no reason to exist.

Seven reasons why I like this definition:

#1

It emphasizes design as a process, rather than design as a thing or an outcome.

And yes, of course, design can absolutely be used as either a noun or a verb. But by focusing on the act of designing, this definition builds respect for the work by helping people understand that it’s not a shallow pursuit, and it doesn’t happen quickly or automatically (ie: no, it’s not as simple as just slapping a pretty color on something).

#2

Speaking of process, it’s very compatible with the Design Thinking process.

#3

It’s flexible and inclusive of problems related to both form and function, while simultaneously giving a subtle nod to function being the most important of the two (which it is).

#4

By referring to problems and solutions — plural, not singular — it recognizes that:

  1. There are often multiple problems present simultaneously (and they’re typically interrelated, so they all need to be considered).
  2. There are usually multiple possible solutions to any given problem.

#5

The words “moving towards solutions” imply that design is never done, and it’s never perfect. Instead, good design is a continual process of reevaluation and incremental improvement, always pushing towards something better.

#6

It’s more inclusive because it goes beyond the visual and tangible things that so many people typically think of when they hear the word “design” (eg: buildings, cars, logos, brochures, user interfaces, etc).

Two examples:

  1. When a particular topic is important yet hard to understand, that’s a problem. So what’s the solution? Helpful, educational language.

    In other words, under my definition of design, writers, communicators, and teachers are most definitely designers. In fact, they may be some of the most important designers of all. Their design processes simply lead to different kinds of solutions than other more stereotypical design disciplines. 
  2. When a community is dealing with a serious problem that harms its citizens and leads to injustice, that’s a major problem. So what’s the solution? Redesigning institutions, policies, and procedures to be more fair, just, and effective.

    In this case, politicians, government staffers, and citizens are the design team. Their designed solution may be more abstract and intangible than a building or website, but it’s equally important, if not more so.

#7

Perhaps most important of all: This definition is more opinionated than others — and that’s exactly what we need right now.

What do I mean by this?

Well, there are already a number of good definitions of design, but what prevents them from being great is that they refer to concepts like “creation” or “planning” or “intentions” in a very neutral way that’s wide open in terms of both interpretation and application. For example, what if a designer’s intentions are bad? Or, what if their intentions are good, but their plans are weak, or they don’t consider unintended consequences?

It goes without saying, but we’ve got a lot of problems facing our world right now. As a result, we can’t afford wishy-washy definitions of design that encourage rudderless creation for creativity’s sake, or leave the door open to regression and negative outcomes (even unintentionally).

Instead, we need to design like our lives depend on it, because they do.

That requires a definition of design with built-in “guardrails” that keep us from going off track — one that nudges us towards forward progress and positive solutions that make people’s lives better.

Through its core concepts of being constructive (not merely creative), and moving from problems to solutions, that’s exactly what this definition does.

What do you think?

Do you like this definition of design? Do you have any questions about it? Tell me…