What is Design?

Design is a loaded term, Wikipedia’s states there is actually no formal definition for design and goes on to provide a typical scientific definition, which is a fairly useless way of describing anything. Dan Saffer’s presentation on designing with technology offers two key quotes that provide a perspective on design that I found both useful and insightful.

Design is Not Just Problem Solving

Some people(they are wrong) say design is about solving problems. Obviously designers do solve problems, but then so do dentists. Design is about cultural invention.

So, design is about cultural invention. Not just solving the problem, not just providing a plan to accomplish a goal. But to go beyond, perhaps by little or preferably by much. True design invents a culture.

And that is not a humbug definition. Imagine the impact of a Sony Walkman that allowed us to carry our music with us. Or perhaps the mobile phone, which allowed us to call a person instead of a location. Each can be seen to have invented a culture, or at least influenced it significantly.

Design is Profound

Good products change the way we think about that type of product. Great products change the way we think about the world.

A good product influences our thinking about the whole class of similar products. But great products influence our perception of the world. This is a permanent shift in perspective.

Think about that for a moment. Inventing a culture, a shared perspective that unveils some hitherto hidden aspect of the product, service or perhaps in the experience of it.

Beyond Form & Function

True design is not just about form and function. Beyond form and function is the aesthetic experience. Imagine how the iPod and iPad raise our expectations of what a mobile and tablet device should and can be. The BlackBerry, which was the mobile device of choice until the iPhone, is now a bore and a drudge.

With form, function and aesthetic experience sorted there is something much subtler and deeper that can be possible, something that opens us to a higher plane of thought and experience. This is almost philosophical territory.

Think about how the night sky riddled with the eyes of light almost always leaves you humbled. Such a profound experience is the goal of great design. We might not always reach that goal with technology based products but remember, an inch closer to great design is an inch away from mediocrity.

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