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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