Reclaiming 'Design'

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Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin.

Design has become a muddled word. Among its many, varied, definitions one can quite easily find a niche in which to exist. Graphic design, interior design, brand design, web design, the list goes on. Each is different and corresponds to a distinct skill set. There is however, a core to these systems; one that has been stretched and manipulated in order to cut costs and create efficient processes that allow design to exist within ever-shrinking budgets. The core of design has eroded as a result of these efforts, and it’s time that those calling themselves as designers start fighting for the ability to really do their job, or start looking for a better, more definitive term for the role they occupy.

Exploration and Discovery

My entire premise stems from my definition of the term “design” that has evolved over the course of my education and employment. While I believe that this definition holds true today, I am absolutely sure that it will change over time. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “design” as “A plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is made.” I agree whole-heartedly with this definition. My qualm begins with the definition they provide for “design” as a verb, that is: “To do or plan (something) with a specific purpose in mind.” This definition isn’t wrong, though I feel it lacks emphasis and specificity. “[…] with a specific purpose” leaves this definition open to interpretation, something that employers manipulate freely in order to sell products that are considered “designed”. At this point, I was forced to ask myself how the term “design”, alongside its counterparts “designed” and “designer” should be defined in order to address its most fundamental objectives.

In order to corral my thoughts, I asked a few of the people in my immediate life for their take on the word. My first instinct was to approach my dad with the question, as he works in architecture and thus surrounds himself with design on a daily basis. This was his response:

“Design is the conception and planning, intentional or not, and its related expression, of an action, fact or object.”

— My Dad

This was closer the the definition I was looking for, but still not fully satisfied, I decided to approach a mentor and colleague about her perspective on design. She explained that design is simple and usable. It is function. Design serves a purpose that stems from being empathetic with a user. This resonated almost immediately. Design extended beyond shaping an object formally or aesthetically. It was suddenly given a deeper purpose. Design was a decision, an active choice made to empathize with the current and foreseeable state of the person consuming the product.

As someone who claims the title of “designer”, shaping my own concrete definition for the word “design” felt daunting. I was after something that represents what I want to achieve as a designer. Finally, I settled on the following:

“Design is the intentional conception and/or iteration of an idea that prioritizes user needs in order to facilitate meeting a defined goal.”

— Me

No assumptions. No budgets. No limitations on the questions that need be asked. As a designer, I seek to generate a product that functions as simply and fluently as possible for its users.

Why This Seems Impossible

Unfortunately my ideal has been smothered by the current state of affairs in the world of “designer-friendly” development. It seems that every company wants a designer because they abstractly understand the value of a well-designed product. The issue at hand is that despite deeming it necessary to hire designers, very few of these companies understand the time and investment required to actually produce quality design. This involves thorough research, prototyping, testing, iterating and testing some more. It means providing the opportunity to work in the field with target users in order to learn their behaviours and allowing the fluidity required to shift the product’s direction when these user goals evolve.

Saying that you have a designer working on a project has become no more than a marketing tactic to assure clients that their product is being executed with thought. The reality is that many designers are finding themselves stifled by restrictive budgets that prevent most of the real design process from actually taking place. They are asked to make unfounded assumptions about possible users and forced to take shortcuts that harm the project in the long run. How do we show this to employers? It’s a tough argument to make in some cases. The real question that should be asked at this critical juncture is whether or not those in charge actually value the design process and how it needs to be executed. If budgets are an issue, or the employer doesn’t recognize the importance of quality design, perhaps it’s time they admit that a full design process simply isn’t within their current grasp.

Regardless of how things evolve over time, I feel that my understanding of design has grown significantly in the last little while. My attempt to discover what design is and how it can grow, have opened my eyes to substantial hurdles that face designers today. I intend to continue searching for a means of showing the true value of design to the people around me in order to advance their understanding of what the act of designing involves.

As a designer, I don’t know the answers. The reason I’ve chosen to design as a career is because I enjoy learning about people and the ways they use the things around them. This takes time, requires me to ask questions and is never, ever, the same process twice. When I’m asked to make an assumption, I’m asked to stop designing. I strive to always work with a true design process in mind, so that each and every project I have a hand in moves towards this ideal definition. Hopefully, with time and a little hard work, design will be given the time and care it deserves.

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