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Design, Defined

Design, Defined

Design – a term that dates back to the 14th century - has become mainstream over the last decade. Design has done well operating on the fringes of organizations and people are now seeing the value that it can create and provide. It has emerged as an important tool to help people see and guide change. How far will it spread and what will be the extent of its impact on business? 

Let's start by taking a broad view of the word in order to understand it's origin and meaning.


What is design?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines design as:

  • a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is made
  • a decorative pattern
  • purpose or planning that exists behind an action, fact, or object

I find it helpful to look at synonyms and antonyms so that I can get a better sense of what a word means and how it can be used. Synonyms for design include, but aren't limited to: arrangement, composition, form, scheme, conception, idea, treatment, blueprint, pattern, and picture. For contrast, it’s antonyms include: luck, disorder, chance, fluke, and coincidence. 


Who is practicing design? 

There are many forms of design practitioners: design strategists, design thinkers, architects, design engineers, design managers, design leaders, design scientists, graphic designers, user interface designers, user experience designers, service designers, product designers, industrial designers, network designers, systems designers, and design researchers. They are tied together by the way they look at problems and generate solutions that are deeply tied to the needs of the user or end customer. Design’s impact is being felt across multiple industries as these various designers work to create new sources of value.

The real legacy of the current design movement is that design-empowered organizations, not necessarily single designers or specific design teams, will drive change in the future,. 


What are designers really doing?

It is important to understand that designers perceive the world differently than others. They see a world of possibility, opportunity, impressions, and hope.

Additionally, in the mind of the designer, problems are not static and the framework used to understand a problem shouldn't be fixed. Not all problems are mechanical, nor do they all require an engineered solution. Design requires a softer touch where the answer may not be yes or no, or black or white, but someplace in between. Human nature is to categorize and define reality. Design shouldn't work this way because it will limit one's perception of a problem. The best designers can hold both the macro and micro viewpoints in their mind simultaneously. Designers help organizations reach the area in between or options that people wouldn’t otherwise readily see due to preconceived notions about how to solve a particular problem. 

The skills that designers use to solve problems can also be found in many other professions:

  • Powers of observation - Watch people and their actions, interactions with others, and their answers closely. This can aid in understanding the dynamics of an organization or system.
  • Dialogue - Can you effectively converse with customers, team members, or leadership?
  • Note-taking skills - Can you draw or write and quickly capture the essence of a problem or idea?
  • Appreciate silence - Give people time to think. Also, watch what happens when a room goes silent. Who speaks next or reacts? 
  • Suspension - Withhold judgement and see all sides of a problem.
  • Positive and Negative - Strive to see the whole. Understand the lack of something and what that means.
  • Structure - Understand how something is organized and the resulting implications. Look for and understand the meaning of patterns and why they occur.

A word of caution: Design play is a necessary part of developing new techniques and experimenting with new ideas, but it can only take you so far. When you are forced to start balancing the needs of the customer, then you will begin to make progress in your development as a thinker-doer and as the creator of effective solutions.

Design gets real when you are addressing real problems affecting people.

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