Define Design

Define Design

In Lima we met Jasper Harlaar who was by that time, just finishing his apprenticeship at one of the oldest and most respected woodcarving workshops in Lima: Taller de Arte Colonial from the late Julio Cesar. When we visited the woodcarving workshop and filmed Jasper at work, we asked him why he wanted to learn this trade and what he hopes to be doing with this on returning to the Netherlands. We captured his answers on video and edited it in the following movie:

Talking to Jasper, who is making products out of wood with his own hands, made us reflect on whether (Industrial) Product Design as it is being thought at many universities of applied science in the Netherlands like the university Jeroen works for, is a trade as well. Product Design involves many of the same aspects like working with raw materials, being skilled in production methods, knowing when to use which tools and it seems to involve a very similar attitude of being patient, not giving up, working on your own etc.

This meeting with Jasper infused the discussion about the definition of design, so maybe it is time to put the different principles for the different definitions we found so far on paper and share them with you. Why is it important to define design? A clear definition of design sets the foundation for design theory. Design theory helps designers understand complex problems and make intelligent and informed decisions about there own careers, studies, collaborations etc. The four principles for the different definitions of design we discovered so far are:

Design as a trade

When we talk about design as a trade, like the woodcarving trade exercised by Jasper, we mean the profession of a (industrial) product designer, a fashion designer, a graphic designer, an architect etc. These professions are being taught at art schools, colleges and universities all over the world and definitely involve some sort of training before being practiced. Learning about materials, production technics, production management etc. gives designers the skills and knowledge to professionally work out ideas into something technically feasible for production. These designers often work on commission and are often not responsible for the idea behind the product, tuning the product to the target group or the business model of the product. But is this really all design is? And does this trade of a designer even require a talent to be creative, emphatic, entrepreneurial etc?

IMG_0250

Design as a process

When we look at design as a process, we mean the process professional designers as mentioned in the previous definition use to come up with new solutions. Simply phrased you could say ‘the process of creating something new’, which is a lot broader then the process a lot of the current professional designers use, because in order to create real value it needs to include besides aesthetic and functional dimensions also economic and sociopolitical dimensions. The process itself is a creative and collaborative one and is characterized by combining existing solutions, associating on other solutions etc. It always involves a diverging a converging component and an iterative step by step approach which helps you to come to this solution which needs to be desirable, feasible and viable! Can anybody use this process? Would this mean that with this process anyone can come up with their own solutions for their own problems? Or do you need a specific skillset, education or talent for this?

HCD iterative proces

Design as an attitude

During our trip we often could look at someone and concluded whether someone is a designer or not, just by the way someone behaves, dresses, by the profession he chose etc. We then not refer to design as a profession or a process but to design as an attitude or a talent, maybe even a character trait. This would mean that behaving like a designer or using a design attitude might be something, which is independent from being a designer professionally or even using a design process. The movies we made from the different people we asked whether they are designers support this as well. But what is this design attitude then, is it about being bold, curious, is it about learning by, creativity, visual thinking, empathy, iteration? And how much of this is overlapping with the design process?

IMG_5505

Design as an aesthetic physical end product

When we talk about design, especially when used as a adverbial like a design chair, design hotel or a designer dress, nowadays we often refer to physical products which somehow differ from other physical products by the way they are designed to be more desirable without losing all of their basic function, which still differentiates it from art. This desirability of these products seems to come from color, shape and even less tangible characteristics like humor or trends. This is the sort of design that Tim Brown is second-guessing in his Tedtalk when he asks himself what happened to design that it became such a luxury good.

Our own design challenge has been focused on discovering more insights on the impact of design on poverty reduction. Which of these different definitions has the most impact on poverty reduction? In the beginning we were still in doubt whether this is the physical end product or the process because physical products like toilets, mobile phones etc. have had a huge impact on or wealth level, but with the above described definition of a design product the choice between these 2 is easily made: the design process!

The design process, which guides you step by step to come up with a solution for your design challenge which is both desirable, feasible and viable is definitely a powerful tool in fighting poverty and therefor our preferred definition of design. But we do admit that it isn’t possible to really choose between these different definitions, because you and we are currently using all these different definitions interchangeably as well.

design?

What do you think: what does design mean to you? Which definition do the different design universities use? For example check out this movie from the California Collage of the Arts in San Francisco: http://www.cca.edu/admissions/whycca/art-matters or this discussion between different Dutch design courses about whether this graduation project is design or not: http://www.archined.nl/opinie/2013/explosies-in-het-designonderwijs/ (only available in Dutch; sorry!).

Do you have any other definitions or adaptation to our definitions, which you want to share with us?

Of course we are not the first ones to discuss the definition of design. For those of you that want to explore more definitions we collected some links to articles, lecturers and websites that helped us define our definitions of design.

Design-legend Bill Moggridge lectures on the definition of design in this movie

Wikipedia on the definition of design: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design

Prof. Michael Hardt shares this slideshare on designing the definition of design:
http://www.michael-hardt.com/PDF/lectures/design-definition.pdf

And this website is completely dedicated to defining design: http://defining-design.net/

Authors: Boukje & Jeroen

6 responses to “Define Design

  1. Thanks for this interesting post on design! Bill Moggridge lecture is very interesting indeed.

    In my eyes, Viktor Papanek needs to be added to your list of literature about the understanding of design. According to him (1984) “all men are designers. All what we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act toward a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process.” This understanding to me is crucial – design should not be a separate ‘field’ but understood as key to all human activity.

    • Hi Meret,

      Thank you for your comment and thank you for sharing your insights and the definitions from Viktor Papanek!

      Thanks Jeroen

  2. Thanks for this interesting post on design! Bill Moggridge lecture is very interesting indeed.

    In my eyes, Viktor Papanek needs to be added to your list of literature about the understanding of design. According to him (1984) “all men are designers. All what we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act toward a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process.” This understanding to me is crucial – design should not be a separate ‘field’ but understood as key to all human activity.

  3. Pingback: Redefine Design | Am I a Designer? about Human Centered Design & Social Entrepreneurship·

  4. Hi Meret, your going to love this research then:

    “Research shows that the mean difference between Neanderthals and contemporary Humans is a that while Neanderthals had significantly larger visual systems to see better in the dark, modern humans evolved in Africa where longer, brighter days required no such adaption which allowed our frontal lobes, associated with higher-level thinking, empathy and creativity to form” Chris Stringer

    We probably write a new blog about this very soon…

  5. Pingback: Facilitate the design process | Am I a Designer? about Human Centered Design & Social Entrepreneurship·

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