Response: What is (and is Not) Design

Design is creating a space in complexity and interacting inside that space. Effective designers bring with them particular knowledge, practices, tools, and a frame of judgment or connoisseurship. Design is not generalities, clarity, or problem solving.


In which Melissa goes looking for trouble by responding to Kevin’s description of design. Because “trouble is precisely what we want.” [3]

“If everyone is a designer because they change the color of their walls, then everyone is a mathematician because they count change at the grocery store.” -Bill Buxton [4]

“People are designers – and some people are very good designers.” -Nigel Cross [5]

Although I agree with much of how Kevin has defined design, I’d like to complicate his description. As Redström[6] stated, “the presence of many different definitions is not a conceptual shortcoming of our thinking but in fact an effective strategy for coping with certain kinds of complexity.” (p. 6)

Here we go.

If “design encapsulates any type of intentional move toward a more preferable solution,” then there is very little that isn’t design. Most of what we do is intentional at some level, and most of what we do is motivated by some need to improve something.

The fact of the matter is that even though we are all active participants in the artificial world, calling every day problem solving design dilutes the term, taking away the richness of what professional designers do. This isn’t to diminish the power and importance of every day creativity and problem solving. Rather, I’d like to highlight what makes design unique, and what we can learn from expert designers that can help us better navigate complexity.

At the crux of design is an ill-defined problem space. By ill-defined, I mean a fuzzy space–a space without borders. This is how Charles Eames described the anatomy of a design space [7]:

a sketch representing overlapping design considerations

Eames’s design space is an irregular overlap over three other areas: the “interest and concern of the design office”, the “genuine interest to the client,” and the “concerns of society as a whole.” The designer’s job is to work within the overlap space, creating some type of output that meets the variety of concerns and interests. This isn’t simple; Eames noted that the areas “are not static” and influence each other.

From this perspective:

Design is not problem solving, it is about creating a space within a particular (and complex) context and operating within that space.

Design is not generalized knowledge, it is about the particular; it’s not problem solving through theory, but making through concrete things and actions. This anchoring in the particular is what makes design effective in complexity.

Design is not finding clarity, it is “asking for trouble” (Redström, p. 2). Design straddles dichotomies: creative and analytic, thinking and doing, form and function, art and science, theory and practice. Redström says “Design can . . . be remarkably resilient and willing to commit to all that is neither black nor white, but complex and colorful” (p. 1).

Design is special because it doesn’t just “work” in complexity. It embraces complexity. Returning to Redström:

Indeed, design’s capacity to deal with complexity and conflicting concerns is perhaps its most fascinating feature . . . this ability to address complexity is inherently intertwined with design’s resilience to reductive dichotomies. More specifically, it comes out of a hunch that a key reason we enjoy dichotomies so much in design is because they allow us to address conflict, collision, and contradiction, opening up new perspectives and potentials as a result.” (p. 2)

These are the reasons I, personally, am having a design moment. I see so much conflict around me, conflict that I can’t resolve. I’ve become hyper-sensitive to how every person is living in a different world[8] , and that everyone has blind spots. I am indecisive on controversial issues–I’ll choose a side only when and if I have to. Until then, I just keep everything complicated, searching for my own personal blind spots, and remaining open to changing my views.

I navigate my ambivalent world through design. It is the only way I can find purpose. I can design a professional development program for a particular group of teachers in a particular place and at a particular time, but I have to recognize that these particularities will change even while I am designing. I move forward by acting and reflecting, remaining flexible and ambivalent. I develop a problem and solution, making each fit each other in this particular, complex context.

There are other things that set apart a designer from a problem solver, a mathematician from a grocery patron counting change–for one, the wealth of knowledge a designer (or mathematician) brings to the table. Knowledge, practices, judgment, elements, tools–these are all important and part of a design discourse. These are the things that improve the quality of design, that make some designers better than others, that define design disciplines.

But at the core, the design starts with an ill-defined problem space and expands to address the complexity of our ever-changing, whitewater world.

1 Sterling, B. (2009). Design fiction. interactions, 16(3), 20-24.


3 Redström, J. (2017). Making design theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, p. 2

4 Buxton, B. (2010). Sketching User experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design. Retrieved from

5 Cross, N. (1999). Natural intelligence in design. Design Studies, 20(1), 25–39. Retrieved from

6 The Redström quotes throughout this post come from his book Making Design Theory:

Redström, J. (2017). Making design theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

7 Neuhart, J., Eames, C., Eames, R., & Neuhart, M. (1989). Eames Design: The work of the office of Charles and Ray Eames. Harry N. Abrams.

8 here’s an interesting example of this:

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