“Design”

So this program I’m in is called Human-Computer Interaction Design. Last semester I took a class called Interaction Design Practice, this semester I’m in a class called Experience Design. I read Design blogs, I seek out articles around the internet about Design.

I am growing to hate the word Design. It means something different to everyone who uses it. “Design” all by itself is incredibly vague and unhelpful. I mean, aside from the fact that what “design” is, at its most general, is incredibly broad in scope, hardly anyone who says “design” really means design at its most general. No, they almost always mean the particular kind of design they are familiar with. But graphic design != web design != industrial design != interior design != software design != whatever the crap I am supposed to be learning. Hell, even when people say “interface design” or “user experience design” usually what they really mean is traditional usability work, which is only a little piece of what I’m doing here. I’m certainly not reading John Dewey or discussing hermeneutics for the sake of running a usability lab.

Plus, it seems like many of the people using the word on the internet, at least, are writing from outside of whatever “design” profession they’re talking about, which means that what they think design means is very likely not at all what the people within said profession think it means.

So then you get articles written by people who think ‘design’ means making a pretty logo (hint: a major design firm is going to be able to do a lot more for you than hand you a logo and hope you like it. But only if you understand the value they can offer). Or taking offense at a quote like this one. I’m sorry, since when is it “snooty” to say that a person who is trained and experienced in a very particular and very difficult to pin down sort of skill, is going to be better at that skill than someone who has very different training? Does anyone call software developers snooty for believing they can write better code than the average bear? No, because code always looks hard, but the best designs look obvious.

For those who still don’t know what “design” is, the wikipedia page is actually decent, though I disagree with it very strongly in certain places. For example, the very idea of including a “typical steps” section on a page about design-in-general strikes me as nothing but misleading, no matter how many qualifiers you stick in front of it.

I also disagree strongly that “design is a more rigorous form of art” and “engineering is a more rigorous form of design.” Ok, this is an “encyclopedia” article that is supposed to be “NPOV” and all that, but at least cite some friggin sources. Who views design as “a more rigorous form of art?” Probably not designers. Certainly not me. I especially take issue with the phrase “art with a clearly defined purpose.” Like art doesn’t have a purpose. Art can have all kinds of purposes! Personal, expressive, emotional or entertainment purposes. Sometimes art has a very clearly defined didactic or moral purpose. Art can even have a purpose defined by someone other than the artist! It’s called working on commission. Or having a patron. Art has one set of purposes, design has another. The same with engineering.

It may be closer to the truth to say that design and engineering are both about problem-solving, but only a little closer. My professor likes to say that design is not about problem-solving, it’s about problem-setting. Engineering starts with a set of well-defined specifications. A material implementation needs to meet those specifications. The problems engineers work through are highly specific to matching particular materials to specifications. Well, in an ideal world. If engineers have poorly-defined specifications, they will need to make design decisions, and chances are the engineers will not be equipped to make them successfully. Much like how I am not equipped to make successful decisions about how to manufacture an alarm clock.

Design, on the other hand, starts with dissatisfaction. Something in the world is not right, and the design process is a process of exploring ways to make it better (maybe all the alarm clocks in the world were designed by engineers and are covered in rows of tiny identical rectangular buttons and no one can set their alarms properly). While an engineer has a plan for how the world needs to be, and wrestles with the problems of making that plan real, a designer has many ideas about what the world might become, and wrestles with choices between them.

I’m not gonna lie, pre-design-school me is looking this over and shaking her head. When I started this program, I read all kinds of ridiculous stuff about what it means to do design, and it barely made sense to me. But now here I am trying to explain, and I’m producing all the same ridiculous stuff. Except now it makes perfect sense. I think the only way to understand what it means to design something is to do it yourself. But not in isolation – no one would imagine that you could learn to write good poetry without reading it. Playing around in photoshop without ever looking at the work of others is not going to turn you into a good graphic designer or artist, just someone who knows a lot about photoshop.

But looking at the end products of someone else design process won’t help you to learn design either. Because so much of design is about making decisions, you have to be able to see the decision-making process of others, too. And no one can really help you understand that except another designer.

Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to see design as “snooty.” Good design is almost invisible to the untrained eye, and successful training depends on the guidance of another designer. So it all looks very mysterious and closed from the outside, while the process of de-mystification almost inevitably turns you into an insider and therefore marks you as suspect.

But as I am the foremost expert on suspicion of self-congratulatory insiders’ clubs, let me assure you: design is hard. design is important.

And to return to my original problem, unless you really freakin know what you mean when you say “design,” TELL ME WHICH KIND YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.