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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.Post A Comment
Also from Echo Enduring Media: