Notes on design

I tend to think of design as the most personal of things: a way of reaching goals, making decisions, managing relationships, communicating, learning — being intentional as we negotiate our everyday lives. I’ve had some fun as a graphic designer, but many of the most satisfying moments of my life have been in the classroom, watching students learn new things about themselves and each other in the midst of a design process.

In my life, design is the closest thing I have to religion. It gives me purpose, direction, and meaning, and it’s the filter that I see everything through.


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. Or that you could be.


How do I define design? Design is any process intended to reach a goal or goals. (Also the result of that process: a design.)

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Synonyms. Words like strategize, orchestrate, plan, scheme, and construct are interchangeable with design. As long as it’s working towards something like an intent, target, or objective — a goal.

Graphic design, user experience design (UX), interaction design (IxD), digital product design, user-centered design, and design thinking are just kinds of design — not its synonyms. These activities are design, but design is bigger than these things alone. It belongs to no particular kind of person and no industry. Everyone is a designer, design can be applied to any situation, and design can help anyone do anything that can be done.

Other notes. 1. There are as many kinds of design as there are things that people do. 2. A design is a bundle of decisions. 3. Mistakes are a form of feedback. 4. Evolution is a design pro­cess. 5. Design is proactive learning. 6. There isn’t one, uni­versal design process. 7. When we talk about whether a design is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, we’re really talking about how effectively it’s reached the goal we want it to have reached. 8. A design is inseparable from its goals. 9. Goals make a design’s success measurable. 10. Anything designed for an­other person is a kind of manipulation. 11. Reflection is feedback for yourself. 12. Reflecting on a design process transforms that ‘finished’ design into a prototype for all design experiences in the future. 13. No one’s job is just ‘designer’ — they’re a designer of‑something. 14. So when someone says “I’m a designer,” the appropriate response is: “Of what?” 15. A person making a sandwich is designing.


Good design is obvious. Great design is invisible.

One way to measure the success of a design is in how much the process behind the design interferes with its intended goal. In other words: how much the design or the designer call attention to themselves. When it’s clear how something was designed, or who’s responsible for designing it, that awareness can muddle the ability to understand or use the thing.

Why does this matter? 1. It’s important to recognize how many things in the world have thoughtful people behind them. Even — especially — things that are so fundamentally useful that it’s easy to forget they were designed at all. 2. And it’s worth considering how we might adopt that kind of purposefulness in our own lives. 3. When you recognize the degree to which the world has been designed, it allows you to develop literacy and skepticism about where things might’ve come, what they’re intended to do, and how those goals align with your own. And, 4. it’s important for designers to consider removing themselves from their work. It's common for design professionals to signal that a designer was responsible for this — for the sake of personal branding and recognition. But, I think, at the cost of adding noise and complexity to the world.

I don’t know if this is a universal rule, but I think it usually holds up. In the original version, I used the word transparent instead of invisible. Confusingly, transparent means both invisible and absolutely visible.


Related words

BS — a design with the primary goal of holding the audience’s interest or drawing attention to the designer — while the audience believes the goal is something else entirely.

conspiracy theory — the presumption of design when no designer has claimed responsibility.

content — something designed, primarily, to fill space — not to address a real need.

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.

intentional arc — our perception of the world is shaped by our intentions in that moment.

juice — an unnecessary component of a design that reinforces (doubles-down on) the design’s primary goals. Juicy choices leverage the unique opportunities of the medium they’re designed with. These designs are executed so thoroughly that they’re bursting at the seams (i.e. juicy).

media literacy — the inverse of design. Understanding how a created thing came to be and the decisions embedded within it.

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, shtick, gimmick — an unnecessary component of a design intended to add uniqueness or make the design more compelling — separate from the design’s primary goals. (e.g. delight).

teleology — the study of design or goals, or an explanation of something in terms of its design or goals.

toy — an activity without a goal.


Ideas that’ve influenced what design means to me.

The Comedian’s Comedian’s Comedian — “The act is the process.”

Everything is a Remix — “Everything is a remix.”

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.”

What I Learned as a Substitute Teacher — “Any seemingly dull thing is… a composite of smaller events or decisions. Or of atoms and molecules and prejudices and hunches…. Everything is interesting because everything is not what it is, but is something on the way to being something else. Everything has a history and a secret stash of fascination.”

Are We Running Out of Ideas? — “there’s a strong cognitive bias to consider that you are at the end of history, because the history books all end with you. But for any given thing,… or… some sort of social or cultural institution, wherever you are right now is probably the middle, not the beginning or end, because the middle is the big part of most things.”

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 Dark Knight — “The mob has plans. The cops have plans. Gordon’s got plans. You know… they’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.… You were a schemer. You had plans. And, uh… look where that got you.” — The Joker

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 future is… [either] determined by chance and necessity or formed by intention through design.”

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.” — Robert Ford

Super Normal — “Special is generally less useful than normal, and less rewarding in the long term.”

By Design — “When we call designers problem solvers, the connotations are very grand.… It helps if we remember that, to a person hungry for scrambled eggs, a short-order cook is a problem solver.”

My Financial Career and Other Follies — “[Humor is] the strange incongruity between our aspiration and our achievement.”

The Great American Joke — “The constant gap between American ideals and American realities,… between mundane circumstance and heroic ideal, material fact and spiritual hunger, theory of equality and fact of social and economic inequality, between what people would be and must be.”

Hunter S. Thompson on goals — “The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important.… beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living within that way of life.”

Man’s Search for Meaning — “To be sure, man’s search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium.… the 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.… everyone’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 August 3, 2019.