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What Is Design?

posted by Matt Ward on May 25, 2010.

In this article, I want to tackle the interesting, though perhaps somewhat difficult question: what is design? This is not a survey of the history of design theory, but rather a collection of my own thoughts in which I consider the importance of purpose, intention and content.

What is design? Have you ever asked yourself this question? What was your answer? I’ve been thinking about this for the past several months, and while the question itself may appear simple at first, the answer seems a bit more difficult to nail down.

What Is Design?

What Is Design?

In a previous article, entitled “The Myth of Inspiration”, I described design as being “purposeful and intentional” and, while discussing the relationship between inspiration and design, I suggested that it could be “the intentional execution of spontaneous inspiration.” In “Between Art and Design” I also suggested that “Good Art Stands Alone. Good Design Supports Content.”

I would like to use these statements as the starting point for this article, in which I will process through some of my thoughts, and offer my own perspective on what I think design actually is. I hope you’ll come along, and enjoy the journey.

Foundations

I want to start of by saying that this particular article is actually very intentionally un-researched. I did not want anyone else’s thoughts to have an immediate impact on the process I am undertaking, which is to examine and uncover my own thoughts on this all-important question. As such, what follows is almost painfully non-academic. Hopefully, however, it will raise some meaningful and interesting questions.

To start, I want to draw three distinct words out of those phrases that I quoted from previous articles: purposeful, intentional and content. From my own perspective, these are the three cornerstones upon which genuine design actually rests. Moreover, I believe that by addressing each concept individually, we can begin to piece together an answer to the our principal question: what is design?

So, let’s get started.

Purposeful

Any design – good or bad – needs to have a purpose. There needs to be an underlying reason that surrounds its initial creation and that ultimately justifies its continued existence.

That purpose does not need to be particularly profound. More often than not, design is actually a matter of the banal and the everyday. Look around you. Unless you are reading this from somewhere in the wilderness, you’re probably surrounded by things that have been designed by human hands for some purpose or another. Personally, as I write this, I am sitting at my dinning room table, and a quick look around reveals all kinds of interesting designs:

  • Two Poang chairs from IKEA, designed with the purpose of providing comfortable, stylish and affordable seating.
  • My cordless telephone, designed with the purpose of containing all the telephone’s circuitry in an attractive and comfortable casing
  • My daughter’s toy computer, designed to look like a real laptop, but with a pink plastic casing which is designed to be both durable and girly.
  • A push soap dispenser, designed to have a unique, modern look with a distinctly natural influence.

Each purpose is interesting a unique, but ultimately has a critical bearing on the finished design, which is crafted to suit it. Theoretically speaking, every element of the design should somehow contribute to achieving that purpose (though in the real world this may not necessarily be the case).

The phone's casing is designed with a specific purpose

The phone's casing is designed with a specific purpose

I would even go so far as to suggest that any creative product without an identifiable purpose is simply not a design. For instance, if you were to sit down and create a cool looking poster just for the sake of creating a cool looking poster, then it is not really a design; it’s art. Oh it may look “designed” and may have used all the same skills and technologies that you might use to a poster for a client, but it is not designed because it has no underlying purpose to guide and inform its creation.

Art can exist for art’s sake. Design cannot.

Intentional

Design is also intentional, by which I mean that elements are placed with thought and reason. This may seem similar to saying that design is purposeful, but there is a key difference. When we talk about purpose, we are referring to the overarching reason for the design. It applies to the product and process as a whole.

I look at intentionality as being something vastly more specific that deals with the little details. It involves important decisions about things like colour, texture, typography, lines, spacing, sizing, juxtaposition and so on. When present, all of these little details work together to make the design as a whole, and as such each of these areas should be implemented with careful consideration.

Just like I did when discussing the importance of purpose, I would even go so far as to suggest that, without intention, an element is simply not designed. How can it be? If you open Microsoft Word, or any other word processor, and just start typing out a bunch of copy, then print it off or create a PDF and email it to someone, how can it possibly called a design? The typeface that was used, along with the colour, tracking, leading and margins are all simply set to the application default.

Typographic decisions should be intentional

Typographic decisions should be intentional

Obviously, this is somewhat of an extreme example, but I think it serves to support the point that I am trying to make. If the properties of a design element are not carefully and intentionally considered, then that element hasn’t really been designed. Of course, this doesn’t mean that these properties need be changed. If you take a good look at an element and decide that the default value is actually the best option, then by all means feel free to keep it!

Also, there’s nothing wrong with setting your own default values if you are working on repetitive design projects like a serialized magazine. When you first establish the overall look of the book, you will want to give careful thought to typographical considerations for the body copy. When the next issue comes around, though, you don’t necessarily have to go through the entire process again. If you made the right decision the first time, then you should come to the same conclusion again!

As long as it’s intentional it’s design, even if that intention is established at the beginning of a long, long run!

Content

So far, we have discussed the need for purpose and intention in design. The third area that I want to discuss in this article is the issue of content. Design is inseparably bound up in the issue of content. It functions as a framework through which to present a particular message, idea, philosophy, theology or ideology.

As such, the content becomes almost like the lens through which the design is focused. It provides the answer to the question of the purpose and informs the decisions made with specific intention.

Content offers a design focus

Content offers a design focus

However, I would like to note that my concept of content stretches beyond simply the copy and other information that may be included in a piece. My vision of content also encompasses more general and abstract elements such as the overall mood of the design, the larger message that is to be conveyed through the visuals, brand elements (if they exist), and so forth.

Basically, content includes everything that is being communicated, whether through words or visuals.

For example, if you were designing a promotional poster for a benefit, black tie concert featuring a world class pianist, your design would likely include a number of formal elements – possibly a black and white colour scheme (maybe with a splash of red?) and a classical typeface. The content would inform these intentional design choices.

If we were doing a similar poster for a different type of concert however – say an indie punk band at a local bar – the design would likely be very different. I would imagine something a little edgier and less refined, possibly making use of grunge and hand drawn techniques, with rougher fonts and a slightly more chaotic layout. The colour scheme could be anything from monochromatic to full blown psychedelic.

In both cases, content works to focus the design.

Now, some of you might be thinking that this content idea is all well and good, as long as we are talking about posters, magazines, websites and the like, but what about other forms of design, like packaging (bottles, containers, boxes) or logos? Well those have content too! Remember, our working definition of content is much broader than just text or copy. It also includes those much broader forms of communication, which certainly apply to packaging and logos.

For instance, if a logo for a new restaurant is supposed to convey a sense of country-style warmth and good, old-fashioned home cooking, or if the design of a wine bottle is supposed to give an impression of sophistication and class, those ideas would form the content of the design.

Content is everywhere in design, helping to establish purpose and direct intention.

Conclusion

To summarize then, I would suggest that there are three key elements that are integral to all forms of design. The first is a solid understanding of the purpose of the design itself. The second is to make carefully considered and intentional decisions about the various design elements themselves. Finally, design is always created as a framework for some degree of content, in both the common and broader sense.

With these three concepts in mind, I think I have more fully developed my own understanding of what design really is. And, a broader understanding can only ever help me become a stronger practitioner of my craft!

As one final, note, however, I would like to emphasize the important difference between design and something like engineering. They both require a specific purpose and intentional decisions, so that the primary difference is found in the area of content (or the lack thereof). While design is a framework for content, engineering strikes me as being more practical, so that instead of communicating a message its more focused on accomplishing a particular task.

For instance, when creating a new car, a designer would help establish the overall look and the shape of the vehicle, while an engineer would work on the hidden structure and mechanics that actually make the car run. They both work purposefully and intentionality – and probably communicate with each other – and the main difference simply comes down to content.

Of course, I’m not engineer, so I could be totally off-base here, but that’s my general understanding. If it’s even remotely correct, though, it should really emphasize the importance of content to the designer.

What do you guys think? As I stated above, the purpose of this article was not to provide the absolute definition of design, but to formulate and express my own understanding of the subject. I would love to read your thoughts and reactions.

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Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Comments

May 26, 2010

Ken Reynolds says:

I like the way you’ve approached the question, and laid out your thoughts. I’ve pondered this question before and written a post about it. My conclusion was this:

“Graphic Design is a way of communicating complicated ideas in a simple and powerful way.”

I’ve always considered communication to be the defining element of design which I guess you have defined as ‘content’ and ‘purpose’.

Jun 1, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Thanks Ken. I think your conclusion works very well too. I like the idea of simplicity too. I wonder if some designs become overly complex, just for the sake of looking “cool”…

May 26, 2010

Cesare says:

Just wondering … is there purposeless design? Can I just sketch out something, with no intention to solve any problem?

Jun 1, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Hey Cesare – I’ve thought about this a bit since you left your comment, and I would have to say that, by my way of thinking, no. If you just sit down and start sketching, you’re doing just that, sketching. It’s a valuable exercise, to be sure, but I just don’t think it is design. What do you think?

May 27, 2010

Ben says:

I believe that “design” is about aiding the transmission of information. That’s what a good design should do.

May 27, 2010

Joseph Malleck says:

Excellent article.

It really got me thinking about design in a different way. I especially like your take on the intentionality of design. That is a key factor, i think, in what separates design from random publications or art. It’s what separates designers from what Von Glitchca calls “toolers” in my opinion.

Great read! Keep it up.

Jun 1, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Thanks Joseph! Intentionality is definitely a key component to any design, and I’m glad you enjoyed that part of the article!

May 27, 2010

Lyndi says:

Love this post. To be honest Matt I think you could used a lot of the content for several more posts. Lots of great spin off ideas that I would love to hear more about.

Excellent ideas that boil down to: “Design is a way of communicating complicated ideas in a simple and powerful way”

Jun 1, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Thanks Lyndi! Your kind words are greatly appreciated. You know it’s a funny thing – almost every article I write (either here or on other sites) seems to lead to more thoughts and questions. This one definitely spawned some more ideas for articles, which you can expect to see over the next little while!

May 28, 2010

Polly says:

I usually don’t read articles which are supposed to give answer of a big important question, because these answers are too abstract, too complicated, too depending on the individual’s opinion.

But this one was very interesting to read, and somehow different. Maybe it’s the author ;) You write very well man.

As for me, I can’t possibly answer this question… Not so good with words.

Thanks for this great read!

Jun 1, 2010

Matt Ward says:

Hey Polly. It is kind of a big question to try to answer isn’t it? But I think that sometimes we just need to engage with these big questions, even if we don’t necessarily come up with equally big answers.

As for the writing, thanks for your kind words about that too. I always try to write in a way that is both interesting yet accessible. I hope I can keep it up in future articles too.

Jun 1, 2010

Polly says:

I know you can :) I have never been disappointed by the things I read here, never bored and never indifferent.

This particular article is exactly what I love about your writing – pushing boundaries, answering big questions, finding the deeper meaning.

So keep them coming for all of us who love spending time here :)

May 31, 2010

Rose_Ca says:

Interesting ideas presented in this article. Even the phrase, “by design” means “as a result of a plan; intentionally” which fits in perfectly with the theme of this article. I would think that engineering is more of a marriage of design and science then purely practical. However, I’m not an expert on that either. Thanks for the article.

May 31, 2010

Dave says:

I’ve often debated (sadly, with myself) over how to explain the difference between what is art, and what is design. I usually come up with design meant to communicate something tangible while art is more about expression of thoughts and feelings (basically abstract). This article, does it in a much better way.

I’m looking at you’re three cornerstones, and can associate three simple goals to them: purpose=why (you’re doing the project), intentionally=how (you’re putting it together), and content=what (you’re putting into the project).

Thanks for the article. It’s always good to question how design is supposed to work, or not as the case may be.

Jun 2, 2010

Blamb says:

I think Saul Bass said it best, “Design is thinking made visual”

Jun 2, 2010

AKD says:

Nice article… totally agree…

Jun 3, 2010

SlaapMe says:

Thx for this article, it’s very good and help us to understanding what our job is really, and remember that design is not art, design IS for something, some content .

Jul 4, 2010

Orchid says:

wow am so relieved to come across this post of yours…being in the design industry we hardly stop to ask this question ‘what is design?’. Now that I am sitting for an interview for a faculty position in a design institute, I thought the first thing I should do is find out the answer to this question. I think you have managed to give a good definition and also some of the comments from your readers have helped me a lot…thanks once again. I am definitely going to follow you…cheers!!!

Oct 4, 2010

Brad says:

Great article Matt. Not every day that we designers think this much about our craft, but you put a lot of great thought into this and have some excellent points on design.

Dec 3, 2010

Matt says:

Matt,
I loved your article. I work for a school district and have recently begun thinking about how design concepts can help change the way we educate our children. What if, instead of “planning” a lesson, teachers were taught to “design” a lesson? What if all students were taught design concepts beginning in the early grades? I look forward to reading more of your work.

Jan 31, 2011

emma says:

Well done for your article, keep writing it’s great!

Dec 8, 2011

maduca says:

Hi Matt

I posted the picture What is design? in my design blog indicating your article.

http://marciodupont.blogspot.com

at the right read my articles about design.

Best!

May 24, 2012

sharad says:

yes a complicated thing xplained in a ‘simple’ manner that makes ‘design’more recognisable to its target…
being in media marketing i often see advertisers focussing more on the ‘communication of content’ rather on ‘how’…a reason may be space-cost factor. So a design should also encompass this factor tooo

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