Let’s start with definitions: As a noun, “a design” is used as either the final plan or the result of implementing that plan in the form of the final product of a design process. As a verb, “to design” refers to the process of originating and developing a plan for a product, structure, system or component with intention. Some people simply see it as applied arts.
I don’t think we can build the understanding of design through its definitions if we are really interested about knowing what it actually is. The most interesting part is the fact that our understanding may not stand too long as the design world is spinning so fast, we will be introduced to new experiences, new meanings every day. I think it is pretty much the same as the definition of marketing. If you ask marketers about this, they either come up with a very ambiguous answer or no answer at all.
I believe that design was born because of necessity. Human beings need solutions to their problems. They need solutions that function well and look beautiful at the same time. Early on, people started to insert aesthetic influence into these solution, making them artistically functional, and/or functionally beautiful. But it always comes back to the effectiveness of the solution. So we, designers, often call ourselves problem solvers, although not many remember this while actually laboring at our jobs.
Most of you know the design world is divided into several common categories: graphic, interior, fashion and product design. In very recent history this has expanded into more elaborate differntiations: visual communication, web, interior textile, new media design and so on. I now prefer not to put designs into categories. As design is a very dynamic discipline, it tends to change, mix, overlap and alter itself into something new, every time. Interior designers collaborate with graphics to make a big wall in a living room look good. Fashion designers such as Gianni Versace are involved in designing exotic car interiors. One of my all-time favorite product designers, Phillip Starck also designed a lot of really nice hotels as an architect.
One of the most essential parts in the design process is formulating the concept. A concept simply means the core thoughts that support a design. This is a very personal step. Some people form the concept at the beginning of the process, (sensoric) preferring to think before doing. Some prefer to do it while developing the design, (motoric) to think and design at the same time. Some do it after they finish the end result, (reverse engineering) do first, then think up something to make you sound truthful and wise. The funny thing is more than half of all designers out there don’t conceptualize at all. Barbaric as this may seem to those that do practice this crucial step in the process, machismo is no excuse. No thinking, no solutions. But why do so many designers bypass conceptualization? Because it’s bloody difficult. It requires deep knowledge, broad perspective and long, laborious research. Say, you wanted to design a wedding invitation. The end result might be very simple and elegant. But do you know how difficult it is to make something very simple, elegant and interesting? Imagine a clean white wall. All that empty space makes it extremely easy to spot any flaws.
Now let’s talk about the execution. Back to the wedding invitation example, a good designer has to pay attention to the smallest details. Is the material flexible enough? Is it thick enough? Is the space among the letters equally balanced? What is the tonality of the fonts, is it romantic or elegant?
In my early years the most difficult part was not designing, it was the clients. There were, of course, nice clients who appreciated your work and vision, and finally trusted your skill and judgment. Although, being nice doesn’t necessarily mean being easy to please. Difficult clients tend to make us better designers as they like to challenge and question us. There is, however, another species; the clueless clients. They usually don’t know what they want, only what they don’t want, so they are never satisfied. These people spend a lot of time being frustrated. They change their minds as often as they change their clothes. In these relationships only experience can save the designer’s sanity. I personally tried not to take these patrons too seriously by compensating myself proportionately: the more annoying they were the more expensive my fee. The great thing about creative work is that you can be creative about the bill, too. If you’re getting it for free, chances are it’s not worth anything. Designers tend to consider their work just that, a full time job, and just like any other job, sometimes it’s “one more day, one more dollar.”
We designers tend to try and look cool, as well. Probably because of our love of beautiful things, we try very hard to design ourselves. Of course, part of this is just to differentiate ourselves from other designers. I usually end up with the same style everyday, black on black. My reasoning is the subdued look focuses the attention on my work, not me. Or at least, I hope it does. Sometimes my apparel can stand out in a room full of summer colors. In my college, students who tried too hard to look unique were usually not trying hard enough in their classes. I think my all black look is a work ethic holdover from my college days: I want to focus all my creative energy on my job, leaving none for my clothing selections.
Design is indeed a fascinating and unique world. It is one of the rare disciplines that values technology and the sublime, function and form. It is the star of the creative industry because it’s everywhere from the Guggenheim museum, the iPod to your favorite band’s logo. So please remember, if any of your children want to be a designer and you’d prefer them to be a doctor, someone had to design that scalpel, those glasses and that artificial heart. Design is a part of everything we use, and if it’s a good design we probably use it every day.
As written for High End Magazine, Mar 2009. Special thanks to Ryan McClure for his editing.