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?
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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