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What is Design?

What is design? This is a question that I get asked almost weekly and a site about design should have a sense of what design is. So often we post links to objects that are beautiful, but is beauty design? Maybe we will post a quote by someone that talks about the time, energy and patience that is needed to produce a quality design, but that doesn't answer what design actually is. If you are involved in the design process in any way it is a question that you have to continually ask to remind yourself of the philosophy behind your designs.

Your answer goes a long way in shaping how you approach the design process.

Look at the different ways people use the word design:
  • Jack Nicklaus designs golf courses.
  • There are people that design cars.
  • Landscapers design landscapes for your house.
  • Scientists will say that a skunks spray was designed to ward off predators.
In each case, the word design is being used in the same context. No matter what the person is doing, when they are designing, they are solving a problem.

Design and Beauty

I love the design of the Apple iPhone, as do many other people I’m sure. What do I like about it? I like the curves. I like the screen. I like the way you interact with it with your fingers. So from this we could say that design is how we interact with something. Maybe design is how we interact with a product or how an object interacts with its environment. However, I feel that design means more than that.

Digging even deeper we sometimes like the way something is designed because it is easy to work with. Making something easy to use is a by-product of great design. We don’t like to think too hard to solve a problem. Nature is the greatest problem solver of all. Looking at a plant, every piece of it can be justified. Nothing is extraneous, everything serves its purpose. Are all plants aesthetically pleasing? I don’t think so, but to me aesthetics is an opinion. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder as they say.

Going back to the iPhone example, what many people love about it is that it solves a number of problems in a beautiful device. The fact that you can make a phone call with the iPhone is secondary. The idea that you can store all of your music, watch movies, play games, find out how to get to that Mexican restaurant and many other functions all in a little handset is amazing. Apple never set out to create a better phone because it is hard to already improve on the functionality of dialing a number and connecting to someone else around the world.

It is a simple device. It is a joy to interact with. It is beautiful. All of these qualities by itself don’t make for a great design. It is the whole of the iPhone that makes for a great design. Although for some features, like turning it off you might have to read the manual, the overall usage of an iPhone is pretty easy. They say the quickest way to get from Point A to Point B is a straight line and in many ways the iPhone’s design encourages that. So in this case maybe we can say that design is the process of finding the quickest way to complete a task.

Then There is Emotion

Emotional design is not a new topic on this site. In fact, it is probably my most favorite topic about design to cover because it is so misunderstood and underutilized. Engineers like to solve problems without taking into account the aesthetics of things. Yes I am generalizing, so please forgive me if you are an engineer with an eye for the aesthetic. You really can not blame engineers though for solving a problem in the best way they know how. To them emotion probably doesn’t play a part in the solution of a problem, but human nature doesn’t seem to agree.
The main issue is that emotions have a crucial role in the human ability to understand the world, and how they learn new things. For example: aesthetically pleasing objects appear to the user to be more effective, by virtue of their sensual appeal. This is due to the affinity the user feels for an object that appeals to him, due to the formation of an emotional connection with the object.
Not sure if it gets any scarier than this.
You already know what an apple looks like. It looks appealing enough to eat. It has an aesthetic about it that invites you in to take a bite. We have no fear biting into an apple because of how it looks. A rambutan on the other hand would make most people want to stay away.

The Answer

Design is the process of finding the most elegant answer to the question of ‘how do I…?’
How do I get a huge hunk of metal in the air to fly across the ocean? I must design a way. How do I get someone to signup for my service they don’t know anything about? I must design a way. Both of the questions could be answered with ugly solutions. They could find old and archaic ways to solve the problems, but that isn’t what design is about. The elegant solution takes into account all aspects of the design. Taking the practical solution, the function, and adding the aesthetically appealing aspect to it, the form, and there you have a solution to the problem of ‘how do I?’


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