The service of seeking and deciding: Design?

What is design?

Paul Epp

A dictionary will advise us that it is related to intention. This may take the form of both material and immaterial aspirations. As an example, I may have designs on my neighbour’s property, in which case I want to acquire it. Or I may have designs for my neighbour’s property, in which case I may have been retained by him to make a bench for his yard. It’s a bit confusing but the former usage is now less common. Currently, when we speak of design we are usually referring to something that has been realized according to the intentions of a designer, or at least their plans to do so. In this case the plans are actually referred to as a design as well, whether they are drawings or another form of documentation. So, the intention is a design, as is the tangible communication of it and also the final result.

That’s a lot of design and it implies a process. What actually goes on? There are a lot of people that have defined this, with fairly broad agreement, allowing for a bit of pedantic self-importance. I’ll add my contribution by observing that it’s my conclusion, after many years of practise, that there are principally two activities.

One I will refer to as exploration. This is the creative part and is mostly about a search for new ideas. The more ideas a designer finds, or the more that are considered, the better are the chances of finding a superior one. That just makes sense and it is what designers are trained to do. Non-designers sometimes consider ideas to be a free resource and in the public domain, so to speak, arriving as they seem to do out of the air, not realizing the combination of talent, skill and discipline that are required to be good at this.

The second component is decisiveness. Decisions are made as to what the design will be. The word Design is from the Latin Designare (to designate). So, you can see the connection. Design is ultimately about making a decision as to what will be done and how the designers’ intentions will be realized. They must prepare themselves for this task and this is by formulating a test, whether mental or physical, for evaluating their ideas. It either fits or it doesn’t, fulfilling the challenge, or not. This second part of the design process is quite unlike the first, in that it is restrictive, rather than free, and rational rather than reflexive. It is left brain versus right. It is sometimes critical to separate these activities, as the restrictive can prematurely constrain the creative. But sometimes these actions take place simultaneously, with new ideas being scrutinized as they appear and either rejected or retained. It may not matter to an experienced designer. But the consideration of many possibilities is usually still important.

What kind of people are designers? One description is that they are dreamers. They dream with the intention of making their dreams come true. Another description would be that they are progressive (seeking change), rather than conservative (avoiding it). One wouldn’t bother to dream up new versions or configurations, if there wasn’t the belief that improvements could be realized. The old may not be adequate for new conditions. This is a major part of why I consider designers to be valuable. They seek improvements. Leaving well enough alone isn’t how designers operate. That doesn’t mean that designers are always right and that their contributions are actual improvements. But sometimes they are and aren’t we better off as a result? Design is ultimately a service. People other than the designer are served. Their wellbeing is considered. They are presented with something new that may be beneficial. Their needs are being met.

The benefits may be financial, through new technologies, new materials, new processes, greater efficiencies and so on. They may be aesthetic, through more pleasing conformations, more evocative imagery, more harmonious presentation or even the choice of something refreshingly different. Another benefit is ease-of-use and this is now occupying more and more designers.

In our digital world, as things threaten to become more complex we must have the right tools to accommodate these changes. So, considering the user’s experience is a broad social benefit.

Design is a pervasive activity, and I’m pleased to see that it is increasingly understood and valued.

Paul Epp is a professor emeritus at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.

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