What does it mean to design something? What does it mean to be a designer? Are we all designers by virtue of being human or is there something more needed?
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A couple of weeks ago, Maria left on comment on my post about decision-making. She pointed me to the epilogue of Don Norman’s book, Emotional Design. The epilogue is titled, We Are All Designers (PDF). It was good timing as I’d just started working on this very post thinking about what makes someone a designer.
If design is about solving problems and making decisions, if it’s a plan to achieve a goal and if everyone does these things as part of their jobs and lives, is everyone a designer? And if everyone is indeed a designer, what does it mean to call yourself a designer? I’m afraid I’m going to raise more questions like in this post than answers. I’m thinking out loud as much as anything.
The Origin of Things
There are many different ways to design something, many different things to be designed, and many different types of designers. Is our ability to design what separates us from the other species on the planet?
I remember back in elementary school (high school, maybe?) discussing what separates humans from other species. The long held opinion at the time was that human beings are tool makers. I don’t think is a huge leap from humans being tool makers to being designers. Unfortunately the idea doesn’t work as animals have been observed to make tools as well.
Jane Goodall observed chimps making tools. The chimps stripped twigs of leaves and then stuck the twigs into the ground to catch termites. The chimps certainly modified something to make a tool. Is it design? It solved a problem. It was done to achieve a goal.
Was it planned? Would a chimp think about how to make a termite catching tool. Would a chimp look at a branch and wonder, “Hmm? If I stripped off the leaves this thing would fit well into that hole and make for a very good termite catcher. I bet I could manufacture more and sell them to the other chimps through infomercials and amass a fortune.”
The chimp probably wasn’t thinking all that and I’m thinking the termite catcher isn’t design. It was something more likely observed. One chimp happened to use a twig without leaves and it worked. Another chimp observed it and looked for similar twigs. Sooner or later one chimp strips a leaf or two off a small branch and that observation leads to others stripping branches of leaves. Less planned than observation and imitation, with an occasional mutation.
It’s creating a tool, but is it design? I’m not sure, though I’m inclined to say no.
I like to think about the origin of things. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. For example who was the first person to cook food. How did it happen? It seems an unlikely thing to consciously think to do for the first time. What would make someone think food and fire work well together?
I imagine someone’s food fell into the fire for whatever reason and food being both important and difficult to acquire for early humans, that someone reached into the fire to grab out the pterodactyl wing they’d been enjoying. Some of the meat had cooked while on the fire and our ancestral caveman or cavewoman had a bite and decided it was delicious.
Hopefully he or she shared their new secret and before long everyone was cooking different things to see how they tasted. They observed or were told about a happy accident and improved on it. It probably led to testing different things in the fire, which perhaps gave rise to other observations.
Cooking was probably more discovery than invention, though in time we’ve designed cooking utensils and appliances and process for cooking different foods. There’s design to it now, but in the beginning it was likely more accident, observation, and imitation.
It makes me think about where the happy accidents turn into design as I suspect many things come about through the serendipity of a happy accident.
For example when did a rock become a hammer. At some point a caveman or cavewoman picked up a rock to smash something. Perhaps a stubborn nut or a strong bone with marrow inside. Hopefully not to smash another cave person, but sadly probably one of the main reasons for smashers.
Using a rock you found to smash something clearly isn’t design. It’s easily observed and imitated. At some point you figure cave people noticed certain shapes are better for smashing and some are better for cutting. Another person applies what they learned about shaping stones by rubbing them against other stones to shape a better smashing rock.
Later someone else adds a branch as a handle and vines to attach them. The branch is then shaped and different vines experimented with or perhaps woven together for strength. Eventually you get to various types of hammers that were clearly designed. When did the process cross from serendipity to design?
If you think about most any tool it’s easy to come up with some kind of sensible sounding origin story. I have no idea if any of mine are true and even if they are, I’m not sure they answer the questions I’ve been asking in this post.
What is Design?
We usually define design as solving problems with a specific goal in mind and we know we make a lot of decisions during the process of a design. There are many types of design. For example.
- Graphic design
- Industrial design
- Web design
- Interior design
- Fashion design
Each has specific problems to solve. A web designer and fashion designer deal with very different questions and answers. Having skills in one doesn’t mean being skilled in the other. Something like an understanding of color is a shared skill, but you wouldn’t expect a fashion designer to jump right in and design websites any more than you’d expect a web designer to jump in and design clothing. Some, no doubt, can do both, but they’d be exception more than rule.
The technical details of each are completely different, which makes them different jobs. Both are still designers because they both solve problems and make decisions according to a process and on and on.
Here’s how I closed my post on decision-making
Design can be applied to most anything. If it requires more than a single decision, more than a single step, it can be designed. A website can be designed. A shirt can be designed. An automobile can be designed. Your life can be designed.
In the end to design is to be human. It’s making the best decisions you can under any and all circumstances. To become a better designer, to become a better person, is to become better at making decisions.
I continue to agree with what I said, but I still wonder if all it takes to be a designer is to be human. It’s possible all humans design, but I don’t know that all humans are designers.
Doesn’t Everyone Do That?
Everyone solves problems. Everyone makes decisions. There are many occupations that solve problems according to a design process. I bet many of the people involved don’t consider themselves designers, though.
Earlier in the week I had some errands to run. I had a lot of work to do as well so I thought about the best route and time of day to run my errands. I knew groceries would be last, but what should come first? Second? When should I go?
I planned a solution to a problem. I don’t feel like I designed anything, though. Perhaps I designed a travel route. Much of what I did meets the definition of design, but I still don’t think it was design. If it was, the word design loses a some of its meaning.
What is it that makes design more than problem solving and decision-making? It has to be somewhat generic to allow for all the different types of design. It can’t include the materials (physical and digital) designers work with.
A book is designed. Does that include the writing? Or is it only how the writing is presented? Is design only for things with an aesthetic or presentational layer?
You can design a system of conveyor belts and robotic arms and other machinery for an assembly line process. It might get some aesthetic treatment, but even with none, I think we’d all agree it’s design. It can’t just be about the aesthetic layer.
What does it really mean to design something? What does it mean to be a designer of any kind?
I’m not really sure. Like porn, I know design when I see it. That’s not a good definition though. I know design involves making a lot of decisions and it involves solving problems. I know there’s something of a plan up front and I know you’re creating something to accomplish a specific end.
What is it though that makes a solved problem a designed one. It can’t just be because it had a plan or was planned. We’ve all planned too many things to solve a problem that we wouldn’t consider design.
Or perhaps things like me planning a route for errands is design and I’m trying to define design too narrowly. Maybe the trouble I’m having is less to do with what design really is and more to do with a reluctance on my part to accept it.
I know I’ve raised more questions than I have supplied answers. I hope you don’t mind. It’s just some things I’ve been thinking about. What do you think? Are we all designers? If not what is that makes some people designers, but not everyone? Is it a level of skill and expertise? Is it the type of problem being solved?
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I think design is simply a solution to a problem. Whether it is thought out or well done is up to the individual or thing designing it. I think a spider is just as much of a designer as it spins it web. I also think my uncle Jesse who has opted to use duck tape for his plumbing solution is also a designer… it works 🙂
Anyone who calls them-self a designer should take pride in the way in which they solve problems and the quality of their designs, not the title of designer itself.
Everyone is a designer and just think how great that is!!!
I’ve always thought of spiders as more engineer than designer, but designer fits too. Maybe we are all designers.
I don’t know why, but something is nagging at me that there’s something more to being a designer than being human. What that is, I don’t know, so maybe what I’m looking for doesn’t exist.
Sure thing Steven,
One thought I had was being self aware and deliberately designing. Most folks who are fixing a problem aren’t aware they are designing a solution.
I really like the idea that when you develop a skill you are developing your sight for that skill. For instance a surgeon can look at the body and see what they need to do. “Designers” have a similar ability. It isn’t haphazard but rather thoughtful. So maybe being a designer is about seeing the design.
However, I want to stick to the claim everyone is a designer. There is a lot more opportunity in that!
Hopefully this helps you. Good luck!!!
Thanks Austin. I was thinking something about the intention to design too. Maybe there is something to the idea of awareness being a factor.
I definitely agree that being a designer enables you to see the design more, but I think that’s more about getting better than it is making you a designer. Unless we decide that a designer requires some minimum level of skill before they can be called a designer.
I think the conclusion—everyone is a designer—is a bit simplistic. Maybe triggered by the overload of divas that populate the world of design and make it a circus sometimes. If this were the case, you wouldn’t offer your services. I agree, however, that “designer” is just a title and it is the result that counts. But, in a world infatuated with cool words, titles are one of those things that we can’t do without yet.
Thanks so much Sara!
Thats true its super simple, but thats what I like about it. Its straight forward. Everyone is a designer and can hone that and solve problems they face. Thats fantastic and we should be excited about it.
However, honing the skills to design is difficult and there is plenty of amazing competition. “Designers” offer their services because they have developed the skills to design better solutions then Joe next door.
Everyone is a designer. The question to me is what makes someone a great designer. Thats my thought.
Thanks again and have a great weekend!
I think everyone could still technically be a designer, but only some offer design services. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you have to sell it as a services. Deciding to sell services could simply be a matter of skill level.
I generally agree with you though. I think there has to be more. Something that just occurred to me is to make a distinction between design and being a designer. Everyone might design, but not everyone is a designer and whatever extra we think is required is more to do with being a designer than designing.
Not just solving problems, but beautifully, creatively, lovingly finding new ways to resolve needs.
That is something more. I wonder though. Does something designed have to be beautiful? Or even creative? I would hope anything made is lovingly made.
I agree with you in the sense that those are goals, but I’m sure we can both find examples of well designed things that are neither beautiful nor creative.
What makes a designer? This is definitely a one-million dollar question. Design specifically deals with communication and the way you present it. Good design makes connections; it empowers people and provides them with the voice they need to communicate. Good design is emotional and impactful; it fosters relationships and makes this world a better place. Designers’ experience and background will affect their work and help them create new solutions to familiar problems. In short, it is your uniqueness that helps you shape your design. I hope this helps.
Thanks Sara. It does help. Everyone here is offering good suggestions.
The part I struggle with is these are generally things to make design better, but do they define what it means to design or what it means to be a designer?
Communication is part of the objective with some kinds of design so that would certainly matter. However, within arm’s reach there are a number of designed objects that make no emotional impact with me. They’re utilitarian objects.
Maybe I’m searching for something that doesn’t really exist, but then I come back to knowing design when I see it, which I don’t like as a definition.
you’re not alone. In general, people understand good design, even when they can articulate what it is. Is design function or form? This has always been known as the design conundrum. Does it really matter to elaborate on something when it works? Would you have the same approach for writing? There is always something that eludes description. Some things simply work and solve a problem, whether it is aesthetic or functional. That’s all that matter:-)
Thanks Sara. All good points. I suspect I’m not alone too. I doubt I would have written this if I thought I was.
I agree it’s more than design too. It’s life. There are lots of things we have a hard time describing, but still know what they are. Maybe that is all that matters.
Everyone can be a designer, but not everyone can be a good designer. I can paint, but that doesn’t make me Van Gogh. I think we’re currently seeing a frustrating trend where people with a computer, Publisher, and the knowledge of how to lift images off the internet think they are designers.
That’s how I’m feeling. In one of the comments above I made the distinction between design and being a designer. Maybe everyone designs, but not everyone is a designer. Being a designer does mean meeting a certain minimum skill set following professional practices.
I hear you on the frustration. It goes beyond design. I’m sure anyone who sells writing services feels the same. I could ask the same question about writing. Everyone can write, but far less write well and even fewer can write in a way that achieves a specific goal.
A designer is someone who is skilled at repeatedly making just the right decisions to connect with a certain demo and at the same time promote an agenda, usually someone else’s. What separates the pro from the amateur is the ability to do it successfully most of the time. Unless you’re a celebrity designer, the rest have to be chameleons, able to use adapt to different styles and whatever works to meet the objective. In a perfect world design would foster relationships and make this world a better place, but we all know that all of our clients don’t have the common good in mind. Yes, most people understand good design, but that doesn’t mean it will get better results than something with average design.
Thanks David. That makes sense. To be a designer then you need to have some minimum level of skill. That’s the general sense I’m getting from several comments too.
It does make sense and I suppose the same standard could be applied to many other disciplines.
There are definitely different levels of design – amateur, good, and great. A great designer has a natural born talent and passion for design, and in time develops the ability to design various communication genres. But there are many, many other things that come into play – such as your knowledge of cultural trends, marketing research, psychology, etc that play into the success of a project. The magic then, is in marrying all that together to create something that hits the sweet spot and deeply connects with a specific demo. Very challenging but very fun! The other aspect is working with clients (not committees) who truly need, and see the value in great design – where good ‘isn’t’ good enough.
Sorry for not replying sooner David. I wish I could offer a better excuse than being busy, but that’s the reason.
All good points. I’m definitely thinking after all the comments is that everyone is indeed a designer, but the important distinction is more about how well they design.
Maybe everyone is a designer, but not everyone can design well. Everything you mention makes you a better designer.
Thanks for the comment.
What a great post and discussion! I, too, think about what makes a designer. My initial thinking comes from being an Industrial Designer by education and profession. However, it has been rounded out and solidified through my studies (and Graduate degree) in the science of Creativity. What I’ve concluded (but by no means have finished thinking about!) is that a fully-realized Designer possesses the following qualities: INTENTION (of the need for function, of the need for aesthetics); ABILITY: (to create/problem-solve/develop/implement with and within criteria); KNOWLEDGE: (of the tools needed to design; of the area in which the design is needed; of aesthetics when coupled with function; of the needs of the end user); SKILLS (to use processes of problem-solving and creativity;to communicate solutions through the design as well as other means as determined by the solution). Without all of these characteristics, one may be able to “design” but cannot be characterized as a “Designer”.
Thanks Miriam. Interesting how you break down the process into the different qualities. I’m curious. How are you differentiating abilities and skills? I know they aren’t quite the same thing, but I tend to think of them as the same thing.
I agree with you that these are ll important characteristics of a designer.
Perhaps SKILLS should be before ABILITY within the heirarchy. One can possess the Skills that I noted but, in theory, may not possess the very important Ability to use them with the constraints that are always present when one is designing: budget, time, materials, cost, manufacturing processes, etc.
That being said, I can definitely see that, for the sake of being more concise, SKILLS could be more elaborated upon to absorb/eliminate ABILITY.
Thanks. That makes sense. Like I said I know they’re different, but the difference can be subtle. Skills might be a more general measure of whether someone can do something, but ability here is whether or not they can apply those skills to the specifics of the project.
Humans and dinosaurs did not coexist.
I know. The line about pterodactyls wasn’t meant to be serious.
OK. It was hard to tell because the tone of your post up until then was serious.
I completely agree. It’s my bad and not the fault of anyone reading.
That part of the post was originally for a different post that was more tongue-in-cheek. This post wasn’t, but the line stayed in my head. It’s something I should have caught while editing.
With the written version of the podcast, I try not to change too much of what I said, even if I might have said something incorrect. Maybe that’s something I need to think about a little more, though.
Thanks for noticing and letting me know.
In his book Sketching User Experiences, Bill Buxton says the following. “Being able to add up your grocery bill does not make you a mathematician. Likewise, decorating your home does not make you a designer.”
Good quote and very true. For some reason, and it seems universal to all of us, we often think decorating anything makes us a designer or at least shows we could be if we wanted to.