Notes on design
Working definition. Design is a process intended to reach a goal. And the result of that process.
An unfinished essay on design. Design is a way of approaching the world. Of recognizing that you are just one of infinite perspectives. Of admitting that you don’t know everything. Of communicating that you are open to change. Of listening to other people. Of learning. Of realizing that nothing is ever, really finished. Of being OK with that. Of embracing it as an opportunity. Of understanding that ‘design’ is really ‘design…ing’. That it’s a process.
That, actually, your entire life is a process. That you, the person, will never be finished either. That you are designing a life for yourself every day, in every moment. Or that you could be.
Other notes. A design is a bundle of decisions. . There are as many kinds of design as there are things that people do. And things animals do, and forces of nature. . There isn’t one, universal design process. . When we talk about the success of a design (whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’), we are implicitly talking about the goal we want it to have reached. . A design is inseparable from its goals. . Design is proactive learning. . Mistakes are a form of feedback. . A person making a sandwich is designing.
Graphic design and user experience design (UX) are just two kinds of design, not its synonyms. Using the word ‘design’ alone for these things undermines the incredible scope of what design can do.
Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent. I wrote these words a few years ago, and it still feels mostly true. If I could rewrite it today, I might use the word ‘invisible’ instead of ‘transparent’ — which does mean invisible, but sometimes also means the opposite.
Related words I use pretty often.
bullshit — a design with the primary goal of drawing attention to the designer, while the user believes the goal is something else entirely.
design cynicism — believing that, often: 1. bad things are designed by someone-somewhere to be bad (conspiracies), and 2. good things are designed only to appear good, but are actually bad (manipulation).
everyday design — making decisions (about our own behavior, our environment, and our relationships), in mostly small ways, to reach personal goals. It’s an activity that’s so common and so fundamental to navigating our lives that it’s easy to overlook as a kind of design at all.
media literacy — understanding how a created thing came to be — especially the decisions embedded within it. It’s the inverse of design.
post-rationalization — finding justification for a decision after it’s been made. Which (in absence of a goal) makes it not a design decision at all.
Ideas that’ve influenced what design means to me.
The Comedian’s Comedian’s Comedian — “The act is the process.”
Design for the Real World — “[All human beings] are designers. All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act towards a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process. Any attempt to separate design, to make it a thing-by-itself, works counter to the fact that design is the primary underlying matrix of life. Design is composing an epic poem, executing a mural, painting a masterpiece, writing a concerto. But design is also cleaning and reorganizing a desk drawer, pulling an impacted tooth, baking an apple, choosing sides for a backlot baseball game, and educating a child.”
The Semantic Turn — “In [the midst of a design] process, people realize who they are to themselves and in view of others, of the members of their community. This is true not just for professional designers. It occurs in everyday life.”
American Design Ethic — “The United States was in all likelihood the first nation… to come into being as a deliberate consequence of the actions of men who recognized a problem and resolved it with the greatest benefit to the whole. America did not just happen: It was designed.”
The Sciences of the Artificial — “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”
The Design Way — “we are pulled into design because it allows us to initiate intentional action out of strength, hope, passion, desire, and love. It is a form of action that generates more energy than it consumes. It… creates more resources — of greater variety and potential — than are used. In this way design action is distinct from problem-based reaction, which is triggered by need, fear, weakness, hate, and pain.”
The Medium is the Massage — “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”
Westworld — “Evolution forged the entirety of sentient life on this planet using only one tool: the mistake.”
My Financial Career and Other Follies — “[Humor is] the strange incongruity between our aspiration and our achievement.”
Man’s Search for Meaning — “To be sure, man’s search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium.… [T]he tension between what one is and what one should become.… What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.… [E]veryone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it. As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.”
Updated May 27, 2017.