Why Is It So Hard To Define Design? Holiday Edition

It’s the holiday season, so get ready to justify your interest in ‘design’ to grandma. “Listen, grandma, design is hard to define…”

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I once received advice to discuss my PhD with extended family members as a three word phrase. “I’m still studying,” I say. This is a nice gate-keeping phrase. It answers the simple question asked, often some form of “what are you doing these days?” However, it also allows for follow-up questions. It allows the family member to define just how far down the rabbit hole they want to go. 

Design, like a PhD, can be defined at various distances from the mouth of the rabbit hole. At the surface, design looks simple, but the deeper you crawl, the more complex it gets. In fact, our team at talkingaboutdesign.com has already published two posts about the definition of design here and here. The second post is a rebuttal of the first. We cannot even agree on the definition of design among ourselves!

This post will address the definition of design at three levels: 

  1. At the mouth of the rabbit hole
  2. A few feet into the rabbit hole
  3. Through the door and into Wonderland. 

More importantly, this post will give you the ability to discuss and define design with your family. Just remember, let them choose just how far into the rabbit hole they want to go.

Comic of a grandson and grandma in a kitchen. Grandma says, "What do you do these days? You design something, right?" Grandson says, "Actually, I talk about design. I don't really design anything." Grandma says, "zzzzzz"

At the mouth of the rabbit hole

At this level, you can just think of design as problem solving. Almost every designer would disagree with this statement, but almost every designer would also probably agree that this definition is not entirely wrong. Good enough for surface level. This way of defining design borrows from Herb Simon’s democratized definition of design: “To design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”1
Herb Simon, a nobel laureate and design thinking forefather, argued that design could be approached scientifically, regardless of the context. He leaned away from the idea that designers needed to be apprentices and craftspeople who steeped themselves in the specific knowledge of their field. He believed that designers were, in fact, problem-solvers. Imagine a cook tasked with making a holiday meal who is struggling with holiday turkey. In thinking about solutions, the cook may adjust the oven temperature, cover the turkey with aluminum foil to prevent burning, and add spices. The situation, here the taste of the turkey, has become more preferred. Hence the cook is a designer.

This is an oversimplified version of Simon’s definition (sorry, Herb), but this is often an acceptable way to define design. What this definition doesn’t do is exclude. Most people are professional problem solvers in some way or another. As Bill Buxton stated, “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.”2
At this level, design is actually easy to define. Embrace the simplicity and enjoy your holidays.

A comic of a grandma and grandson talking in a living room in front of a Christmas tree. Grandma: "What do you do these days, son?" Grandson: "I'm a professional problem solver." Grandma: "What does that mean?" Grandson: "“Well Grandma, I think about ways to improve the [insert whatever you improve here] at my organization by thinking more carefully about what problem I am trying to solve. I do things like defining the problem, brainstorming, and getting feedback from the people in my organization and the customers. I also quickly try things out to see if they fail. My job is to be a creative and holistic thinker.” Grandma: Oh, don't make it sound so complicated, We all try to be creative when solving problems. I still don't understand why you need to be called a designer. zzzzzzzz."

A few feet in:

Grandma: “Oh, wow. You sound like a smart boy. Tell me more”

OK, she wants to go down the rabbit hole. Now is the time to change/complicate the definition in two ways. One, let’s extend what the product of design actually is. Two, let’s exclude certain types of problem solving by talking about the process of design.

Me: “Well Grandma, I think about ways to improve the [insert whatever you improve here] at my organization by thinking more carefully about what problem I am trying to solve. I do things like defining the problem, brainstorming, and getting feedback from the people in my organization and the customers. I also quickly try things out to see if they fail. My job is to be a creative and holistic thinker.”

This level introduces grandma to the design or designerly thinking processes and complicates the simple idea that designers are just people who make things. I like to think of this level as the IDEO-inspired level. For those who are not familiar with IDEO please read this post. In short, IDEO is a design company that brought design thinking to the wider business world by popularizing their design process. Whether or not you believe in design thinking or buy into the IDEO version of design thinking, the IDEO folks certainly figured out how to talk about design in a way that goes beyond problem solving. At this level, you are still defining design as a special process that can be applied universally. Will most designers like this definition? It depends on the domain. Many in business and marketing will start to recognize your definition, but others may still feel that your definition is missing the necessary complexity.

An illustration of the IDEO design process

Let’s return to the holiday turkey. Recall that the cook fiddled with the temperature of the oven, covered the bird with foil, and sprinkled on some spices. A designer, on the other hand, may reframe the problem by thinking about the reason that we eat the holiday meal in the first place. Such a designer may think: “We eat this meal to celebrate and to share time together. How else can I make a meal that does that?” Then, after some ideation, and then a quick phone call, pizza arrives. IDEO-inspired designers order pizza for the holidays. But, that would make my brother-in-law a designer. Hmm… he’s definitely not a designer.

This level of definition is still somewhat easy to define. You can draw some nice circles and arrows to make it concrete (particularly useful if grandma doesn’t hear so well). You can emphasize that designers empathize with their audience. Go ahead, talk about sticky notes and white boards. Want to impress Grandma? Swap the word brainstorming for “ideate.” You are expanding your definition to embody a special type of problem solving. However, this definition is still a bit simplistic. This definition still fails to capture the complexity of design. It still fails to capture the specific and particular domain knowledge needed for design. Hence, there is one more level to go.  

Through the door and into Wonderland:

[Disclaimer: My grandma has never advanced this far down the rabbit hole. But maybe your grandma is a bit more advanced.]

Grandma: “Oh, don’t make it sound so complicated. We all try to be creative when solving problems. I still don’t understand why you need to be called a designer.”

Grandma just opened the door to wonderland…She is “asking for trouble.”3
OK, down the rabbit hole we go!

Design is about complexity. It is not supposed to be simple. In fact, Johan Gunnar Redström, the head of research at the Umeå Institute of Design, argues that there really should not be one definition of design. He says, “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) That’s the rub. When you define design you attempt to simplify a very complex concept. The more you try to simplify it, the more the definition fails. 

Maybe the most helpful practice would be to list some quotes from a previous blog post by Melissa Warr on the definition of design. When you talk to Grandma, once she’s been swept away into Wonderland, go ahead and use one or all of these, in any order: 

Design is not problem solving, it is about creating a space within a particular (and complex) context and operating within that space.”4

“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.”5

“Design is not finding clarity, it is “asking for trouble”6

“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”7

Design is special because it doesn’t just “work” in complexity. It embraces complexity. 8

Design shouldn’t even be definable. Each definition helps to capture something about design, but each definition also fails to capture all of design.  So maybe, this holiday season, throw all caution to the wind and dive right into the rabbit hole with Grandma.

Comic of a grandson and grandma in the kitchen. Grandma says "What do you do these days? You design something, right?" Grandson says "I embrace complexity, Grandma." Grandma says "zzzzzzz."

1Simon, H. A. (2019). The sciences of the artificial. MIT press.
2Buxton, B. (2010). Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design. Retrieved from https://market.android.com/details?id=book-2vfPxocmLh0C
3Redström, J. (2017). Making design theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
4http://talkingaboutdesign.com/response-what-is-and-is-not-design
5ibid.
6Redström, p. 2
7ibid., p. 1
8http://talkingaboutdesign.com/response-what-is-and-is-not-design

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