When do we talk about something as “design”?
“Surely, the question I have been asked the most in my life when I say that I am a designer is but a designer of what?” nods Silvia Fernández Palomar, a Madrid-based multidisciplinary designer. For Fernández, her design work is about getting into the process behind ideas and concepts to create simple solutions that people understand. However, before her career reached a point where she has a holistic role in the ideation process, Fernández worked briefly for advertising agencies. Here, the emphasis of design work was the visual outcome or front of the product, as Fernández describes.
“Many times, the designer was in charge of the aesthetic part or to make some things nice.”
Though Fernández acknowledges these agencies’ view of design as equally valid to hers, others might argue that such perception shrinks the value of design into a solely decorative service. In the book Creating the Perfect Design Brief (2004), Peter L. Phillips contends that the non-designers often fail to recognize design as a problem-solving discipline and a core strategic competency. Accordingly, a request for “making the client’s ideas look good” disallows designers to explore other creative solutions. Rather than a taxi driver who takes the customer from place A to B, Phillips suggests the designer’s role as a transportation expert who knows the best way to get to a destination while considering constraints such as time and budget (Phillips, 2004).
Like Phillip’s, Elzbieta T. Kazmierczak (2003) notes that designers are often perceived as form givers. Kazmierczak suggests that our discourse tends to cause us to approach design this way, though designer’s role contains more than providing aesthetics or physical shape. Moreover, alongside recognizing design as the defining, planning, and shaping of a solution, she urges to view design as a cognitive interface that “bridges the gap between form and comprehension” (Kazmierczak, 2003).
Behind all “design” is a professionally titled designer?
Indeed, design jobs do not require professional certification, unlike fields like architecture or engineering. While design can be studied in colleges and universities, a solid portfolio can land a design job without a matching degree.
Meanwhile, crowd-sourcing options provided by companies like 99designs or iStock allow organizations to develop their visual identities without the need to engage with design agencies. Instead, crowd-sourcing enables both professionals and amateurs to compete, and the clients do not see a difference in the value provided by either option. David Holston (2011) calls this the commoditization of design, as the customers see products as similar and decide based on price (Holston, 2011).
So, the design field is democratized by the market that cares little for professional standards but also by the increasingly available design tools, know-how, and participatory approaches. Therefore, is seems that the professional design title behind a project is not crucial to regard the outcome as “design.”
However, the design expertise does not need to become a commodity, even if the craft is threatened so. Similar to Phillip’s (2004) metaphor of taxi drivers versus transportation experts, Holston (2011) encourages to view the role of design as strategic competence rather than the act of “making things.” The ability to analyze and synthesize information, be accountable for design decisions, and collaborate gives designers an edge in the growing competition while offering unique value to the clients (Holston, 2011).
Does our view of “product” challenge what is design?
The ongoing expansion of the design field might seem like a puzzling factor in understanding when something is “design.” For example, a few of my former classmates and colleagues — all professionals from various design disciplines — have questioned the “design-ness” of some emerging design approaches. For instance, calling service design “more something like business” and “not design practice because it does not result in anything tangible.”
Contrasting views of design within the design community are not necessarily bad news. Instead, Richard Buchanan (2001) argues that it is a strength for design not having agreed on a single definition. Furthermore, Buchanan characterizes that a field with a settled definition tends to be lethargic as there is no more inquiry to challenge what is accepted as truth. Different definitions capture different perspectives, simply clarifying the direction of the discussion at hand (Buchanan, 2001).
When we talk about design and design of what, we can try to distinguish it by looking into the outcome of the design process. Buchanan (2001) interprets that the changing conception of “product” — or the outcome of design — is mainly responsible for the revolution of the design field. From the early to mid 20th century, products were understood from an external perspective: the form, function, materials, manner of production, and use. While these aspects continue to be significant, products can also be perceived from an inside of the experience of humans who use and make them (Buchanan, 2001).
It seems that our culture has changed together with the conception of “product.” Klaus Krippendorff (2000) explains this as a transition from a modernist culture towards constructivism. Instead of perceiving things as found, we now recognize a reality where everything is made and, therefore, redesignable. Design is no longer a privilege but a part of nearly every area of social life (Krippendorff, 2000).
Design of Symbols, Things, Action, and Environments
When do we talk about something as “design”? And if it’s “design,” what kind? One way to answer could be by applying Buchanan’s suggestion of the four orders of design. Here, each order is a place to rethink the nature of design and explore the changing meaning of “product” (Buchanan, 2001).
The first- and second-order consider the design of symbols and things. Accordingly, these were also central in the establishment of graphic and industrial design. The first order concerns the communication of information in words, images, and visual symbols, independent of the medium in which it is presented. The second order refers to tangible and physical artifacts, material things. (Buchanan, 2001)
The third- and fourth-order focus on action and environments, both emerging through the current reordering of design. The third order concerns the view that products are experiences, activities, or services instead of physical artifacts. The fourth order is the design of environments and human systems. It focuses on integrating information, physical artifacts, and interactions in environments of living, working, playing, and learning. (Buchanan, 2001)
Seemingly, design can be part of the making of any product — including information, artifacts, activities, services, environments, systems, and policies. Setting definitions depending on the discussion can help in creating a shared understanding of design between participants. Hence, utilizing Buchanan’s four orders of design could manage the conception of “product” in the discourse. The answer of “but a designer of what” could be a “designer of symbols, things, action, or environments.”
Also, Buchanan’s four orders support the understanding that the designers’ have more significant assets than making the client’s ideas look good. For instance, recognizing that communication is the essence of the design of symbols as it defines and interprets data and creates relationships between elements to provide information.
Buchanan, R. 2001. Design Research and the New Learning. Design Issues, vol. 17, no. 4: pp. 3–23.
Fernández Palomar, Silvia. National Design Award Spain, 2019.
Holston, D. 2011. The Strategic Designer: Tools and techniques for managing the design process. Cincinnati, Ohio: HOW Books.
Kazmierczak, E. T. 2003. Design as Meaning Making: From making things to the design of thinking. Design Issues, vol. 19, no. 2: pp. 45–59.
Krippendorff, K. 2000. Propositions of Human-Centeredness; A Philosophy for Design. In D. Durling & K. Friedman (Eds.), Doctoral education in design: Foundations for the future: Proceedings of the conference held 8–12 July 2000, La Clusaz, France. pp. 55–63. Staffordshire, UK: Staffordshire University Press. Retrieved from http://repository.upenn.edu/asc_papers/210
Phillips, P. L. 2004. Managing the Perfect Design Brief: How to manage design for strategic advantage. New York, NY: Allworth Press.