On the meaning of ‘design’

To clients, one of the most confusing aspects of the job we do as web designers lies in communicating the meaning of that pesky word “design.” It’s the kind of word that you can have whole conversations about and have both parties walk away with entirely different assumptions about what was discussed. For we designers, it basically means the totality of our work–often spanning reasearch, user identification, content strategy, sitemapping, wireframing, prototyping, and yes, finally, a visual representation of it all. To most clients, it just means “art”, as in “just throw some money at it and a gorgeous finished website will pop out the other end.”

The Mythical “Creative”

To the uneducated, the designer is handed the same expectations as a painter–someone who starts with a blank canvas, and out of sheer inspiration, wills powerful imagery onto it. But where painters work to create aesthetic beauty and meaning from nothingness, designers use artistic methods to deliver content, solve problems, and meet goals.

Without form and content, there can be no design. Design is not what you say, it’s the way you say it. It’s not what you do, it’s how able you are to do it without wanting to walk in front of oncoming traffic.

But I understand that that’s a pretty nebulous description of the service we provide. As customers, we’re used to knowing exactly what we’re getting up front, at what time and what price, and leaving all the messy details of how it gets done well out of sight. We treat specialists like we treat mechanics: “I don’t know what you need to do in there, just get it fixed and get it back to me.” Likewise, the expectation of a designer is often to take payment, go off into a dimly-lit lair, and emerge later with a finished product.

But design is not that. Design is a goal-oriented problem-solving partnership with a client or user. The best comprehensive definition I’ve come across for it is this: Design is an objective with a constraint applied to it.

Goals and Constraints

Let’s say, for instance, that you live in the 1800s and want to get from New York to San Francisco. There’s no problem in that at all. Just hop on a train and you’ll make it there within a week. Or take a horse and wagon and make it there within a month. Or you could always walk. To meet this objective, you’d have plenty of options, each with its own consequence of time.

But let’s say that you introduce the constraint that you need to get from New York to San Francisco in a day. For that, you’d need to design a solution. And that solution at our present place in history has been the airplane. Of course, you can’t just solve that problem by inventing the airplane. You’ll also have to create airports, and train pilots, and if you count on a lot of people using your solution, you’ll need to create air traffic controllers and eventually the FAA. Like most design solutions, the answer is rarely singular.

As a more modern example, let’s say it’s the late ’90s and you want to take all of your music with you everywhere you go. That’s an entirely possible task. Just load up a shopping cart with all your CDs and carry a Discman and a bunch of batteries around with you everywhere you go and mission accomplished! You now can listen to whatever you want, whenever you want.

This system does, however, have some obvious drawbacks. Namely, that you can’t practically take a shopping cart full of CDs with you everywhere you go. That leads us to a new problem: that CDs, while compact and altogether soulless as a medium, are just too big for you to cart around en masse. You want a solution that is practical, let’s say something that fits in your pocket. To meet that constraint, you’d need to design something similar to an iPod. And the immediate success factors for this iPod-like device would be predicated on the fact that someone had already designed a file format that was a good balance between audio fidelity and file compression, and that you could design a content distribution system for this device, and that you could design a marketing plan that would ensure to everyone and their mother that this was the best thing that had ever been created and a thing that they just had to have.

Designing for the Web

For those of us engaged in client-based web design, the constraint that necessitates our work usually comes in the phrase “…on the web.

If a client wants to create a viable business, it’s entirely within their power to do so. Just come up with a sustainable business model, find a location, hire and train a staff, expand to new markets, start franchising, and on and on. But if that client wants to grow that business on the web, a constraint has been introduced that requires design.

And just as their physical organization involves many facets and many moving parts, so does designing of a solution to meet their goals on the web. It involves research, and content strategy, and analytics. It involves layout, and photography, and typesetting. It involves a CMS and CSS, and A/B testing. It involves many roles and many hats. And that’s why I’m so fond of the broad definition of ‘design.’

The person who designs an effortless checkout form has as much or more bearing on the success of an online business as the person who designed the look of the site. But the form designer is not someone you’d typically call an artist. Sadly, the creative input of UI designers and programmers is often held in the same regard as that of a plumber or electrician. They’re just a necessary step in implementing a plan, an interchangeable part that can be filled by anyone, instead of another creative mind you can put to work towards your goal.

Designers, All

Web development is not typically something that can be done proficiently by one person. The range of tasks requires a level of specialization. But it’s important that we consider all of these specialists as designers working towards meeting our clients’ goals on the web. And most of all, it’s important that we communicate this within our organizations and broadcast it to our clients.

Design isn’t a service that is paid for and then produced in isolation. It is a collaborative process, not only between the different specialists within an agency, but more importantly with our clients. Design is not the part you see. The part you see is the result of the process of designing. In the end, successful design looks a lot less like Picasso and a lot more like a wastebasket full of rejected ideas.

Creating a more useful checkout form is design. Creating engaging content is design. Creating a sensible site structure is design. Creating a social engagement and marketing plan is design. In this way, everyone who is involved in solving the constraint of “…on the web” is a designer.

Visual designers have done nothing to dispell the myth of the magical creative, and that’s done a disservice to other necessary specialists and to the client’s expectations of our agencies. Working within this broad definition of design and communicating it to our clients can help alleviate that confusion. While the solution to the constraint of “…on the web” often appears to be a visual one, that solution is a visual representation of strategy, vision, function, and usability–all those other hats that aren’t typical thought of with such golden auras.

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