Notes on design

Working definition. Design is any process intended to reach a goal or goals. (Also the result of that process: a design.)


Synonyms. Words like strategize, orchestrate, plan, scheme, and construct are interchangeable with ‘design’. As long as that activity is working towards something like a purpose, target, intent, or objective (a goal).

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. Evolution is a design process. Mistakes are a form of feedback. There isn’t one, universal design process. Design is proactive learning. 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. A design is inseparable from its goals. Goals make a design’s success measurable Reflecting on a design process transforms that ‘finished’ design into a prototype for all design experiences in the future. Anything designed for another person is a kind of manipulation. No one’s job is just ‘designer’ — they’re a designer of‑something. So when someone says “I’m a designer,” the appropriate response is, “Of what?” A person making a sandwich is designing.

Graphic design, user experience design (UX), user interface design (UI), and digital product design (apps, startups) are just kinds of design — not its synonyms. Using the word ‘design’ alone for these things limits a broader understanding of who a designer is (everyone) and the scope of what designing can do (anything that can be done).

Good design is obvious. Great design is invisible. The quality of a design can  be measured (in part) by how much the design itself gets in the way. Often, uninteresting things are well designed. And in those cases, it’s easy to miss that there’s intentionality behind them. On the other hand, when it’s clear that something has been designed, that awareness can interfere with the ability to understand or use the thing.

I think it’s important to recognize how many things in the world (even the smallest, least interesting things) have thoughtful people behind them. And to adopt that kind of purposefulness in our own lives. Also, when you recognize the degree to which the world has been designed, it allows you to question the goal of those things — which can be negative. ‘Great’ design can be applied maliciously, too. And, I think 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 branding and recognition. But, I think, at the cost of adding noise and complexity to the world.

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

Related words

bullshit — 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.

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.

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.

shtick — a design decision intended to be unique or interesting, but that’s also in service of the design’s primary goals.

special — a design decision intended to be unique or interesting, but that’s 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.

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.”

“Any attempt… to make [design] a thing-by-itself works counter to the fact that design is the… underlying matrix of life”

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.”

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 17, 2018.