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.

special — a design deci­sion intended to draw atten­tion to itself (aka ‘delight’). A deci­sion that isn’t special is normal.


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.