What is design?

Posted on March 22, 2016

I have what is considered a "left-brain" way of thinking. I have always enjoyed and excelled at math, this in turn made me not very popular in high school (probably for more reasons than just the math thing, but anyway). From high school, I went on to pursue a degree in drafting/tool design with an interest in plastics engineering - not exactly an artsy pursuit. 

Shortly thereafter I shifted career paths toward building websites. In this career, I had always been pigeonholed as a developer. In the days of waterfall web development that meant I was on the receiving end of the shit being tossed over the fence from designers. I was given a picture of what the website should look like and, with a short turnaround time, then asked to build the website EXACTLY as it appears on the picture that was tossed over. 

That was ok for a while, but then I started having thoughts a left-brain web developer shouldn't be having. "Why are we putting the login button there?" "Why are you using orange when the site is for a very serious topic?" "Why are you hiding the navigation for mobile devices?" That's when things started getting confusing for me.

Design had been described to me more or less as a skill you are born with. You either are a "creative" at birth, or you are not. Sorry about your bad luck. 

But the decisions the designers were making didn't feel like it required that creative gene I apparently lacked. To me, the decisions at hand should all be logical decisions based on expected user interactions. In my opinion where to put a login button should never be an artistic or abstract decision because this would confuse the user. 

I wanted to be at the table when the decisions were made for the layout of the website. I wanted to use data instead of opinions to drive decisions. I wanted to do user testing to see if the websites we were making would actually be useful. But I did not understand where that role would fit into the waterfall process that we were using. Designers, usually with an art degree, made a mock-up of the website, and then the developer would build it after all decisions for design had been made. 

I later discovered that the concept of design as a "way of thinking" as opposed to just some gene you are born with can be traced to Herbert A. Simon's 1969 book The Sciences of the Artificial. And David M. Kelley who founded IDEO In 1991, adapted Design Thinking for business purposes. 

More recently Mike Monteiro discusses the difference between art, design, and production in his hilarious and smart book Design is a job

I am a designer 

I always have been a designer, I was just told differently and chose to believe it at the time. I don't know how to Photoshop and I'm clueless about Illustrator, but I am a designer. 

Design is often confused with creating art, but they are in fact two very different things. 

Take for example the design of a chair. An artist may make a chair that is amazing to look at, and touching the chair could evoke emotions you did not know you had. The fabric might be hand embellished and took 400 hours to complete. But are you going to buy this chair and actually use it? Probably not. It's art.

A designer's job is to understand the needs of the person who will be using the chair. A designer will choose fabric that takes into consideration factors such as air flow, durability, stain resistance, comfort, and cost. A designer will look at studies of ergonomics and the design of the human body. A designer is always working creatively within a set of constraints. 

Maybe you're not a designer

If you are making design decisions alone based on what you think someone else will like and you are not doing any research to support your assumptions, you are probably not a designer. At best you might be an artist, at worst you're just a terrible communicator.

There is this idea that all the great designers had this revolutionary moment while in the studio and out from that came the Eames Lounge chair, the light bulb, the iPhone, or the Snuggie. 

Through a process of brainstorming, prototyping, testing, observing, failing, getting back up, arguing, crying and celebrating these products were invented. There was no single moment of genius, but a thousand moments that lead up to their creation and iteration to become what they are now.

You can be a designer

Design is a way of thinking. It is an approach to solving a problem. It is not limited to visual arts in any way. You can design a better way to move through airport security. 

If you are using empathy to creatively solve a problem within a set of constraints, you my friend are a designer. Don't let anyone take that away from you. 

It's time to sit at the adult's table and help shape the design decisions as a team.