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Truly, What is "Design"?

Updated: May 13, 2022

We hear the word tossed around day in and day out, but are some people using it incorrectly? Does it even matter? What IS it?

Some dude drawing

Is it art? Drawing? Engineering? Storytelling?


Design is.. all of that, and more. It is poorly defined by Oxford Languages as:


"A plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is built or made" - Oxford Languages

While Oxford's definition is just referring to the physical "plans" that result from the design process, this is still a terribly lackluster definition. It fails to even hint at the amount of effort that goes into effective design - whether designing a car, jewelry, painting, skyscraper, phone, toilet, or even a photograph. It overlooks all people who design for a living, taking their life-long passion - the reason they wake up every morning and deal with life - and dwindles it down to a single, average-sounding sentence. Designers don't like average things.


So, if I'm going to complain about Oxford's definition of Design, then I should be able to come up with a better one. "Don't complain unless you have a better solution", as the old adage goes. As it turns out, I have a much better single-sentence definition for Design:


The plans, drawings, or documentation of the intentional application of psychological and physical principles to create a product that effectively solves a problem or accomplishes a goal - usually a combination of both - Rienks Motor Design
"Oh wow, that car's design takes into account aerodynamics, ergonomics, aesthetics, themes, efficiency, and all kinds of important things."

There we go. Now that we have a good overall, single-sentence definition, let's move on to the next section of defining Design.



What goes into effective design?


You will hear everywhere, by many pros and wise people, that effective design is only accomplished by creating things that solve problems.


This is incorrect, because it creates something that is never feasible in the real world: an idealistic, absolute statement. It creates a huge disconnect between well-designed fine artwork and other forms of design, like graphic, architectural, industrial, and transportation, among others. At the end of the day, these are all products designed by the human mind for some reason.


If the belief that effective design only stems from problem solving were true, we would not have countless iconic car designs, spanning over a century. If this were true, we would not have countless influential, beautiful artworks around the world. We would not have the Parthenon or Great Pyramids, which were created not just to solve problems, but to accomplish the goal of raising man closer to the gods. Does Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)" solve any problems? No? So is this not considered an incredible design? Duchamp was not solving a problem - he was accomplishing a goal.

Marcel Duchamp "Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), oil on canvas, 1912

We simply would not have the enormous diversity that currently exists among artwork and other human creations, like architecture and consumer goods.


"But Shane, just because there are millions of things does not mean that all of them are effective designs."


This is completely correct, most products and things actually are not effective designs - most put form and aesthetics over the needs of their function. And the reality is, there is a lot more that goes into effective design than the whole form vs function dynamic, such as culture and emotion, which influence colors, shapes, and themes, among other things. It can be argued that these aspects, like culture and emotion, are just categories of form and function, but that doesn't give them the importance they deserve.


Effective design is not just about solving problems, it is also about accomplishing goals - using countless techniques. It's easy to say that all goals stem from problems, and just reword goals to sound like problems, but that isn't true to the human condition. Humans do not just aim to solve problems, they also aim to create where problems never existed. Neanderthal cave paintings from 65,000 years ago were probably not created to solve problems, but rather with the goal of creating something new, or leaving an impression on the world, or something.


Neanderthal Cave Paintings (43,000BCE-65,000BCE) Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images History Channel
Neanderthal Cave Paintings (43,000BCE-65,000BCE) Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

An item can be designed to solve no problem, only to accomplish a goal, and if it does this then it is effective design. Marcel Duchamp would not have created a cubo-futurism masterpiece in 1912 if he had not consciously thought about the piece's design, applying progressive and out-of-the-box principles and methods. Do you think during the process he asked himself "Does this solve my problem?" or instead asked himself "Is this accomplishing what I want it to?"


Probably the latter.


Jaguar could never have created what is one of the most beautiful cars ever designed - the E-Type - without applying countless design principles. Did it solve a problem? No, it was created for the sake of creating something incredible, with a set of principles and goals for the intended outcome. The car was impractical and uncomfortable - but it was beautiful, fast, visceral, and aerodynamic. I even did a detailed analysis of the car's design here.


Helm Motorcars' E-Type Restomod
Helm Motorcars' E-Type Restomod

Can effective design be attained by throwing poop at a wall and seeing what sticks (metaphorically, of course)? Actually that is a well-known method for coming up with new, out-of-the-box ideas, but it does not equate to design. Remember our definition: "The intentional application of..." Intentionally applying poop to a wall does not count.


Now that we've cleared up the existential misunderstanding of what design truly is, let's start getting into describing what goes into it:



Psychology.


To design something - whether a painting or physical device - we must first understand basic principles and theories of psychology. Yes, actual psychology. If you are interested in doing a deep-dive into the fundamental psychological principles of design, an outstanding place to start is Don Norman's "The Design of Everyday Things". Not only was this book highly recommended by my first industrial design professor, but I even had a nice email conversation with Don while designing a sink faucet (this one).


Don Norman is what happens when an incredibly smart master in engineering decides to become a master in psychology - creating a person who is, arguably, more qualified to talk about form and function than most of us. Even though this book is technically geared towards product and graphic designers, the principles can be applied to the design of everything - I'm pretty sure Don even says this in the book. Painters and sculptors, architects, even engineers and movie set designers, have found enormous value in this small book (as have I).


Don Norman "The Design of Everyday Things"

Here are absolute basic concepts involved in design that can apply across the board (from fine art to product design). Keep in mind this is subjective, so I may add to or remove items from this as I further develop my own design skills.


I will give a list, and then further elaborate on each item:


  • Purpose

  • Storytelling

  • Composition

  • Signifiers

  • Colors

  • Materials

  • Manufacturing

  • Is It Awesome?


  • Purpose. An effective design always has purpose. Going back to previous statements, this does not mean it necessarily has to solve a problem, but it has to at least accomplish a goal. The purpose type depends largely on the product type.


  • Storytelling. This is a design concept lost on many people, which is understandable given its abstract nature, yet it is one of the most important concepts of design outside of purpose. It can encompass and drive an entire product's design. Architecture, cars, paintings, websites, consumer products - while these may be "inanimate" objects, we still experience them over periods of time, minutes, hours, days, or years. This means these products can be designed to guide the user, or audience, through a story in a sense. It blew my mind when I first learned about this concept. This can be used to create emotions and thoughts, perceptions, and even influence how the user/audience feels when they leave the product. Do they have closure? Do they want to come back for more? Are they happy, sad, confused, excited, etc.? Consider your favorite movie or book, the same principles used to make it captivating can actually be used to design everything.


  • Composition. How is the product laid out? What are its overall shapes, themes, and proportions? This is a principle comprised of all the other physical design elements - the sum of all the parts that make the whole - and can make or break a design even if all other elements are perfect.


  • Signifiers. How do we know what the thing does, without being told? Can a complete noob understand what's going on? Or is the audience supposed to ponder what's going on? Not everything can make significant use of signifiers, some things will always require some form of instruction, but most things should not require the amount of instruction and frustration that they currently do.


  • Colors. What mood are the colors setting? How do they work with their surroundings? Is there a cohesive color theme? Is it intentionally not cohesive?


  • Materials. What's it made of and what are its textures? Paper, hemp, carbon fiber, steel, dark matter...dish soap?


  • Manufacturing. How is it made? This may not seem important, but this principle alone can be used to influence an entire product's design language - just like materials and storytelling. Considering manufacturing techniques and materials during the design process helps create a holistic, integrated approach to design - which often results in the coolest and most unique designs in the world. Consider items designed specifically with 3D printing in mind - they can have incredibly complex, seamless, organic geometry that is impossible to create through any other manufacturing method.


  • Is It Awesome? This is more of an informal principle I'm adding. If your design is not elegant (and awesome) then it is lacking something, even if you are designing a door hinge, pair of underwear, or toilet paper dispenser. If it does not excite you, then there is still work to be done. If you look at it and realize something about it 'seems off', then it is not all that it can be. If it looks sh*tty, it probably deserves more love and attention.


These universal principles have been applied to effective design for thousands of years, even used (albeit in a more abstract way) in Jackson Pollock's crazy abstract paintings, and things like the Apple iPhone (originally designed by Jony Ive - an industrial designer). Both qualify as effective design, and artwork, in their own way. If you have doubts on the validity of Pollock's conscious design intentions, check out the answer here written by Ginger S. Brown - an outstanding explanation of Pollock's work. For a background on Apple's iPhone design, check out this great article.


Jackson Pollock 1A (1948) vs Apple iPhone XS
Jackson Pollock 1A (1948) vs Apple iPhone XS

Now what?


After a designer has come up with an effective design that solves a problem or accomplishes a goal, on paper, they need to bring the idea to life. This is still an important aspect of design, because if the concept is not designed with the intent of becoming a reality, then it is not effective design. Truly effective design is accomplished by thinking about how the product will be made from the beginning, even if only in abstract terms at first. It should be an all-encompassing process.


We've gotten a little ahead of ourselves in learning what goes into design, so let's step back and learn about the process of design. Since you've made it this far, having invested your valuable time in my over-written explanations, you'll want to stick around for this next part. It is called... wait for it...


The Design Process.


What is The Design Process? If you like shiny, moving things and don't want to read an explanation, I actually created a simplified - and animated - version of it further down this page. Mostly for marketing reasons, and because it looks cool, but it pretty much sums things up. If you want an even further in-depth explanation of the process, check out a slightly different version of it by these guys.



The Design Process:


The order or length of time spent on the following eight steps is not set in stone. Sometimes you may get to step four just to realize you need to start over, and sometimes you may be able to skip steps depending on what you are designing, like a piece of fine art, for example.


  1. Define a problem or goal.

  2. Research as much as possible.

  3. Develop a wide array of ideas.

  4. Communicate your ideas.

  5. Further develop a few ideas.

  6. Communicate your ideas (again).

  7. Build your badass final solution.

  8. Blow people's minds.


1. Define a problem or goal. This first step is one of the most important aspects of design, because without clearly identifying or defining a problem or goal, how can you create something that answers it? Who is coming to you with this problem or goal, and why?


2. Research as much as possible. Has your goal or problem already been solved by others, and if so, why do you want to solve it again? Depending on your answer, maybe you end up going back to step one.


This is where you research the subject of interest, audience, and use-case. You are building a foundation for the rest of the process, so make it as strong as possible. Even speak with marketers and engineers or other professions at this point - knowledge is power. The more you have, the more powerful you can be as a designer. This is also why the best designers throughout history have multidisciplinary experiences, backgrounds, and interests.




3. Develop a wide array of ideas. Remember the "throwing poop at a wall" metaphor earlier? This is a perfect place to use it for developing unique concepts. You can also set rigid constraints, like deciding to use an animal, landscape, or literally anything else in existence as idea inspiration. In step two maybe you created a mood-board, so use that here to drive the design. Let your brain go wild.


4. Communicate your ideas. This is intentionally vague. If you're making a fine art piece, who do you communicate with? Depending on the type of person you are, it could be asking for critique from others, or simply standing back and trying to objectively observe what you've created. If you're designing a product, then ask your end users/clients what they think of your ideas. If you're a visionary, then just stay in your bubble of talent and passion, and continue on. In the world of product design, maybe this is where you start consulting with engineers and marketers on your ideas and get their inputs. What is physically possible? Are these ideas viable for meeting the consumers' needs?


5. Further develop a few ideas. Now with your newfound knowledge and feedback, further develop a few of your most successful ideas. This is where you can seriously start applying the key principles of design - from proportions and contours, to colors, signifiers, implied lines, manufacturing methods, emotions you want to evoke, and just about everything else involved.


6. Communicate your ideas (again). With a further refined product, or multiple, now you have something that is much easier and more effective at communicating with clients, the intended audience, engineers, or marketers. Just like the previous version of this step, how you approach this depends on what you're designing. Fine art? Maybe keep it to yourself. A product, or website? Consider asking the intended users, boss, engineers, or marketers what they think.


7. Build your badass final solution. Now with a huge amount of data, knowledge, and wisdom on what exactly it is you're doing, you can finally build the ultimate final product, or finish your masterpiece. Make this the highest-quality, most incredible thing you've ever done. Effectively collaborate with all the appropriate departments, let everyone specialize in their passion with respect for their skills and talent, and as the designer make sure you facilitate exceptional communication between everyone involved.


8. Blow people's minds. Now you have helped better the world by using effective design, transcending mere mortal existence to accomplish the greatest feat of mankind, joining the exclusive realm of men and women throughout history that is reserved for only the greatest among us: you have created something that has not previously existed. You have become a Creator in the truest sense of the word, not to be confused with a mere "content creator" like everyone and their dog on social media.



One of the most eye-opening things about this process is how much time can be spent on just the first step, defining a goal or problem. It seems easy, right? You want to design a shoe, so there's your goal.


Wrong. Step one can sometimes take just as long as the following 7 steps combined, just like it can also be the shortest step.


You will inevitably find that the shoe needs to be under a certain cost, fit a certain target audience, fit a brand aesthetic, be restricted in manufacturing methods or materials...why will it be better than other shoes...what kind of shoe is it...


There will probably be a lot of consumer research that goes into it, too.


This is the reality of step one. An effective design will not stem from "I want to design a shoe." It will instead be something more like "I want to design a shoe that is sustainable, meets the needs of a runway modeler that is wearing a (specific aesthetic), convey these emotions, inspired by this, etc." Even if you're designing a shoe for yourself, chances are very good that you have restrictions on how it can be made - from equipment available to you, to available time, finances, and even your skill level.


This is where my personal belief in the concept of integrated design comes into play, but I'll save that for another article. In essence, with everything taken into account - all of your constraints, abilities, goals, etc. - you can create something incredible and unique even if you have many limiting factors. How? By using all of the factors to drive the design language, rather than designing something and then trying to execute it within the limiting factors. Embrace the constraints - they lead to the coolest designs in the world, like my 3D printing mention from earlier.


While that may seem ridiculous, it's reality. The shoe should be designed with these constraints in mind, that way the end product is 100% of what it can possibly be rather than 50% of something that could not be completed. Designing within your parameters will allow the most honest and unique design. Without a guiding set of principles, the shoe design is not driven by anything but your artistic, subjective eye, and the lack of a 'foundation' means it is just what you expect - w e a k.

Designing without intent may lead to interesting shoes, but that doesn't change the fact that they will not be even close to their fullest potential, regardless of how proud you are and how cool they are. Just check out the most iconic shoe designs of all time, from the Air Jordans designed for supreme performance and aesthetics on the court, to original stiletto heels by Charles Jourdan designed to compliment and accentuate the shape of legs/feet.




What do these shoe designs have in common? They were created with specific goals, constraints, and driving principles in mind.



In summary:


There is a lot more to design than Oxford Language's definition. It is now late at night, and I will definitely be adding more to this article as time goes on, but this gives a basic answer to the question: "Truly, what is design?" If you liked this post, be sure to join the RMD Community and keep an eye out for my upcoming ones that surround the philosophy behind selfishness and design in the real world, true collaboration, what makes a good leader, how to realistically have an incredible work ethic, and how to be more mature than you really are (it's really simple, just shut up and listen to people).



Shane Rienks



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