What is Design? (Not Again!)

May 8, 2009 § 8 Comments

In high school, when I would get in trouble for skipping class or being late for curfew or (gulp) was pulled over by the police while driving, I would design excuses to get out of the worst part of trouble. In this case, my close friend and I (whom I was often in these situations with), would think about what the discipliner was thinking, then we would think about how to shape the information, however truthful, to fit their worldview. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was probably my first foray into the world of design, a talent that, given my various successes, I honed quite well.

Thinking about it this way, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that children design all the time. They spill their brother’s drink and, when confronted, will make up a story about how it happened. Whether or not it works is a different matter, but nonetheless, it’s still a design. The lack of sophistication in thought process is actually their undoing here, not their desire for a well-designed story. They simply don’t yet have the mental processes in place to make a story that fits their audience.

And so we come to the crux: What is (effective) design? (Not again!)

Quite simply it’s: You + Your Desired Outcome ≥ Your audience’s wants/needs.

Now, there are many ways to achieve this. The ways, shall we say, are mediums and actions being greater than or equal to your audience’s reaction. The medium is whatever form you choose: Web, Print, TV, Movie, Product, Software, Furniture, Writing, Architecture, and so on. The action is making in your chosen medium to be greater than or equal to your audience’s reaction.

With that, effective design is ≥ your audience’s reaction and desired action. Less effective or ineffective design is ≤ your audience’s reaction and desired action.

How so? Design is merely moving your audience to your chosen destination through a medium. Yes, this is dangerous to say because you can take this all the way to those in obstructive and destructive power, like Hitler. Hitler was a great designer for a certain audience. Not so much for another audience (or two or three). Still, he anticipated his audience’s wants/needs and formed an entire ethos around that to unspeakably destructive ends.

But there are also good designs, those that foster life and love, independence and life-easing dependence. But it’s always a question of “Who is my audience?” Your audience needn’t even be human. Heck, it needn’t even be animated objects. Your audience could be trees and you design a way for trees to flourish.

Where design differs from strictly art is that oftentimes, the artist’s audience is him/herself. It is the audience’s responsibility, then, to come to the artist, not the other way around: The artist to the audience. Now, the artist can create baselines, guidelines, for the world of design, like the Bauhaus art, craft, and design movement. They broke things down to their simplest element, lending designers a baseline idea ever since. In this way, you could say they were artists for designers.

And who is a designer? Anyone who projects an audience’s needs and takes actions for a desired audience reaction and action. To me, anyway, it’s really that simple.

It’s just that some of us are better at anticipation than others. And some of us have better mastery over the making aspect in certain mediums. And judging effective or ineffective design is an extremely qualitative process and subject, but like the Supreme Court once famously said about pornography: I know it when I see it.


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§ 8 Responses to What is Design? (Not Again!)

  • Kyle says:

    I have to wonder if there isn’t another way. This definitely espouses the design as rhetoric viewpoint, but I’m an optimist about the possibility of a dialectic process as well.

    Rittel mentions in “On the Planning Crisis: Systems Analysis of the ‘First and
    Second Generations'” that first generation approaches to planning problems failed because they relied on an “expert” having control whereas the real experts where the people most likely to be affected by the solution to the problem.

    This moves designer from author to facilitator/organizer and presents a little bit different view on how things actually reach a preferred state when we’re dealing with wicked problems that involve social situations. What if the little kid admits to spilling the juice, but works with the parent to deal with the spill and learn from the situation? Too optimistic to be real?

  • jefftzucker says:

    Kyle — Thinking about your reply, I realize that my post might’ve been one of the biggest Mr. Obvious posts ever. I think the reason is that I wasn’t getting into any detail, but since you asked… well, this is what I’ve slowly come to realize:

    There are differences between process, medium, and action/reaction. What you described above seems to be more about process. What I mean is that there are dialectic driven processes and dialectic mediums, but it ultimately doesn’t change my “formula” above. All one has to do is change “You” to “Group” and it all holds together.

    In the example about the cup spilling (and maybe it’s a bad example), if that child was relatively positive he was going to be in trouble, measured his options to reduce the trouble, and then chose to go about the “admission+work w/ parent” route and didn’t get in as much trouble, then that is one beautiful design. The child anticipated his trouble and designed a process to work through the problem hoping for the least amount of trouble. He met and/or exceeded his audience’s expectation.

    In this way, which is no different than handy wayfinding, good web design, service design, or any other form of “design” my late-night tired mind can think of, one has worked towards a form of “Love”, as Dick might say. It is a way to independence or live-easing dependence.

    I guess, at base-bottom, the pea in my mattress is that we look to ways to think about design that help us conceive of ways to design, but that don’t necessarily make “design” as a generally conceivable term, well, very conceivable… generally. And this is why I think I may be Mr. Obvious here:

    It should be no surprise that effective design meets and/or exceeds an audience’s expectation. It doesn’t matter the medium, processes excluded. In some ways, I think this is the “Forest for the trees” viewpoint, one that hangs me up quite considerably.

    In this, I think that everything thought through thoroughly, whether by testing or research or expert design, does not guarantee effective design. Effective design merely meets or exceeds an audience’s expectations and desires, whether latent or explicitly known.

    Hm. I think that made sense. I may have lost my mind on this, to be sure, through mega-oversimplification and a lack of proprioception. But I’m not sure. So, I floated the notion. I’m very happy you responded.

  • Riccro says:

    You seem to be neglecting design purely for function here; design not intended for user effect, but for utility. Like, say, the design of a car engine.

    • jefftzucker says:

      Riccro —

      Your comment took me off-guard and had me desperately thinking for a reply when I realized that, ultimately, this theory (and post) on design is probably too broad to be useful.

      The thing is, is that ultimately, what your statement implies is that there is a divide between function/utility and aesthetics. I disagree with this, because it implies that aesthetics is not utility or function. I disagree with divorcing the two because whether you are designing a more efficient engine piston or even, say, decorating a hotel room, there is utility and audience in both. It’s just that one is less visible than the other and one has a more qualitative undefinability than the other.

      Think of it this way: If I am an engineer, and I come up with a killer new design for a piston that reduces waste, lowers energy consumption, and improves engine performance, then what does that mean? Who appreciates it? Aesthetically-speaking, it might only be impressive to fellow engineers. Innovation-wise, it may also only be impressive to engineers. But that piston design ultimately has a function it must perform, and that performance is for an audience with a desired goal: To drive longer, faster, more efficiently, all wrapped in an enjoyable driving experience (less vibration or noise and so on). And in this way, you can say that since the final effect is for an audience, the design is actually guided by the audience’s needs/wants. All of which is interesting in a way.

      At root here is that all design ultimately ends up for an audience outside of the designer’s personal desires. If I make an engine to impress myself that is super cool, but unusable outside of driving a concept, it is probably more design for designers than consumers. But, it is still design because there is a purpose-driven audience (although one could argue that an unusable design is actually art. The line, admittedly, is a little fuzzy here).

      So, to the original point: My post is probably too general to be useful because it ultimately doesn’t draw enough distinctions to be applied to different fields of design. The way I see it, designers all make for an audience that has expectations, whether passive or active, latent or explicit. But, I need to revisit the entire post and break it down into usable categories and examples. That is more difficult than easy, though.

  • Kip says:

    Jeff, are you saying that there already exists an “audience” and that they have explicit and latent needs? I guess I’m a little perplexed about this model. It’s a powerful one, but I’m particularly interested in a framework that might also address the making of an audience (which I think rhetoric is all about) as opposed to making products for an audience that already exists with supposed needs and desires.

    • jefftzucker says:

      Kip –

      Whew. Wasn’t expecting so much on this post. I will say again that I think the model is too broad to be useful, but thinking about your question, it makes me wonder what exactly you mean by the “making of an audience”. If you mean, “I say/create/do something and an audience forms around whatever I say/create/do”, then that is interesting, to say the least. Especially if you mean to intimate that this audience somehow didn’t exist before saying/creating/doing something. Why?


      I think that when you deal with humans, you are already bringing up latent or explicit needs or wants, but probably most importantly, desires. These needs or desires may not be product-driven or even physically tangible. They could be based around the most basic human desires: Community, belief, entertainment, enjoyment, intellectual stimulation, emotional stimulation, and so on. What you do with the stoking of these desires is where humans get fuzzy.

      I think an interesting example to consider is that of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. Here was a man who essentially created a religion from scratch. (Some call it a cult, but that’s besides the point.) In my model above, he had A) himself; B) His goal; and C) An audience who never existed before—at least explicitly, calling for a new religion. Today, Scientology is followed around the world by an audience who didn’t exist as a cohesive force beforehand. However, Hubbard understood something about the human condition, came up with a set of principles and practices and this thing, this religion, has tapped into some form of desire in his followers. What is that desire? I’m not sure — Belief? Community? Love? Enlightenment? Insight? It could be anything, really. But it’s not important. What’s important is that Scientology met and/or exceeded a basic desire while simultaneously meeting an expectation of what a religion is or should be for millions of people.

      A much less controversial example would be that of a musician who makes a brand-new audience with his music.

      An intriguing (but perhaps fallacious) argument would be this: How can you make an audience tapping into desires that’s not already inside them? They may not realize “it” is there, but it has to be there first. We’re not inventing emotions. If anything, we’re merely calling them forth.

      But again, I may be totally off-base here. I know I keep saying that in my replies, but it’s true–I feel a bit out of my head here. And I may not have even understood your reply correctly and everything I’ve just said is moot. But I get frustrated with design as an overly-intellectual pursuit. I think we over-think design and all my model is, is a way to cut through all the garbage and say, “We make/say/create things that are hopefully effective, whatever those things are, because ultimately, they’re for people—Let’s make it with Love.”

      But I could be wrong. ;~)

    • jefftzucker says:

      Hi Again Kip –

      I just re-read your post and realized I missed out on the “framework” aspect. What do you mean by “framework”? A proven, repeatable design for creating an audience? In that case, repeatability with known variables is actually science… which, again, is interesting.

      Is there a science to design? Or rather a science of design? There could be. Not enough room here to get into it, though. At least not until I hear back from you…


  • Kip says:

    Hey Jeff. I was just referring to the Greeks – how they thought about drama (which means “action” in Greek). They knew that one does not become an audience when you buy that ticket at the theatre – one has the potential to become an audience as the drama unfolds before them on stage (your “say/create/do”). I have no comment about your Scientology example but I will respond to your music one.
    There is some kind of phenomenon taking place when one performs in front of a potential audience – you can watch performances by Susan Boyle or Paul Potts (here’s a clip of Simon’s response to Paul Potts’ audition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1DBvAMG-Gmc&feature=related). I tink it’s more interesting when the audience doesn’t expect to become an audience. That’s the power of drama/form that unfolds before us.

    And I don’t think a framework has to necessarily have to have scientific variables. For example, the form of a drama is an example of “framework” for me (Dewey’s conception, development, fulfillment).

    And I’m also intrigued by that question you raise: Are we designing for latent needs/desire that are already “contained” in people, or is this something that organically forms as we make an argument for it? The example I’m thinking of is the relationship we have with others – why is it that I feel I can’t live without my wife right now when I lives fine before I met her? Did a desire for a significant other form as I grew to know her or was that desire there from the start? The last part of an entry I made some time ago asks this question (http://kipthinks.com/?p=200).

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