What is Design?

When I say the word design, what pops in your head?

Visuals pop into my head: a clean web page design, an easy to figure out software application, a beautiful (or ugly but interesting) car.

Professionally, however, the word design also makes me think of information design, code design, product design, and people who design how hardware and software mix to form a design for an application or business (a system design).

In writing this essay, it struck me design is not about solutions, beautiful or useful forms, but about the problems that lead to those forms. Design is a process, in other words. Design is ultimately about the ability to identify problems and solve them in efficient sometimes beautiful or clever ways.

Imagine, for example, you're someone like Susan Kare whose interview starts off this issue. You're an artist and one day a friend asks you to design some fonts and icons for a computer. Except you're limited to using tiny squares on a grid to create your design and those squares have two states: on or off, black or white. It's 1983 and the computer is an early Macintosh.

The proportional fonts might be a simpler problem to solve: come up with letter forms where each letter has an appropriate space on each side. So a lower case letter l uses less width than the upper case letter M. Displaying these letter forms is mostly a problem for the programmers to figure out but they surely will ask you to trim or fatten a letter form to get your font design to display cleanly on a computer monitor.

Your icon design is a different story. Each icon performs a task: convey its purpose in a single simple image almost anyone can understand. Remember the grid, the squares with two states, on or off? How would you begin to come up with ideas to express purpose in a single small image with only a grid of squares?

Designers love this sort of "one hand tied behind my back" problem. While Susan Kare's design problem has a visual solution, really all designers of information, code, systems, experiences, all designers solve problems. They create stuff that helps people do things in efficient ways. Even if you don't see the solution or realize the solution is you clicking on a web application or dragging a file to the trash icon on your computer.

In my experience, the process used to solve a design problem is as interesting as the solution.

The process, at the least, includes experience with tools, customers, and problems, as well as time to reflect and think about the problem and possible solutions and time to test solutions.

I have an idea every problem has ten possible solutions. The first one or two solutions everybody figures out easily. The ninth and tenth solutions are never worth the time spent to find them. And the best solutions happen somewhere between the third and sixth solutions. The trick is to move from the obvious first and second solutions to the better solutions. I do this by defining my problem then working through possible solutions, one by one, letting what works and doesn't work with earlier solutions inform my search for the next possible solution. Eventually I land on a solution that meets most or all of my concerns as it solves the problem.

The idea every problem has ten solutions helps me get through insoluble design problems. It also provides a structure where I can consider anything as input to solve a problem. Inputs might include intuition, activity reports for a web page, personal preference, example solutions from peers (or the exact opposite), really anything useful. And if you believe every problem has ten solutions, you always have a reason to push forward a little more than if you did not. Pushing forward a little more can turn up a really neat solution.

Are there any differences between visual design and all the other types of design?

Really the only difference between visual design and other design disciplines is the need to communicate. A print ad or landing page has to communicate key bits of information at the right moment. Information designers help people find information efficiently while systems designers help build software applications that can handle traffic and grow over time. Product designers create products to help people do things. All of these are solutions to often interesting problems but they don’t usually involve communicating an idea like a print ad.

Speaking as a non-designer who has had lots of fun over years designing web pages, web applications, information, and user experiences, I would say design is about solving problems people have as they do things in the real world. Creating an ideal database design helps make an application faster and easier to maintain and grow over time which, in turn, allows people to use the database to do what they need quickly.

But there's also a more interesting aspect to design. It has to do with how design helps you to see and understand the world. In designing a new website interface years ago, for example, I sat behind a mirrored glass window and listened and watched as people used the website we had to redesign. The insights were fascinating. Yes, people are clueless. But only at times.

More often, people saw our website in ways that would never have occurred to me. Listening to people taught me far more than if I had assumed my experiences were enough to create an effective interface and information design for the website.

As someone also interested in drawing, it is similar to really looking hard at what is in front of me then marking down the details on a piece of paper. With practice you learn to edit. Not every line you see gets a mark. Instead much of what you see in front of you only leads you to the key line in your drawing, the line that helps capture and summarize the person or object.

Drawing teaches how to see. Design teaches you many things, among them how to listen, how to connect with people, how the world really works, how to solve problems, how to persist.

My last point about design has to do with planning. The most brilliant design does not exist unless it is created. And, while it is possible to create a design solution with no planning or reflection, that is rare. More often, careful design requires careful planning. And planning includes what to do when you fail at one step or another. Planning also can include time to explore and try different solutions, different color schemes or database table structures, depending on your project.

In my experience with design, creating a design solution from scratch with little or no preparation is useful and valuable to experience. It teaches the limitations of the approach as well as the need to be spontaneous and open to ideas. But I've never seen a design project succeed that did not include careful planning along with the spontaneity and fun.

Probably I have not answered the question: what is design? But hopefully you have a better idea of the shape and direction of design. That design involves problems and solutions, trial and error, people time and alone time, as well as all kinds of inputs to find possible solutions. A great design can be derivative or unique. A great design can be simple or complex. It all depends on the designer and the problem to be solved.


  • Tim Slavin

    Tim is an award-winning writer and technologist who enjoys teaching tech to non-technical people. He has many years experience with web sites and applications in business, technical, and creative roles. He and his wife have two kids, now teenagers, who are mad about video games.

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