The Boundaries of Design

June 26, 2011

This is the third part in an extended rant. Before you start a rant in response, check out Part I, Over Design, and Part II, In Praise of the Design Underdog.

Part of what makes it so hard — and so frustrating — to advance dialogue about the design profession in any constructive way is that it’s getting harder to set boundaries around what design actually is. Defining it by its deliverables, like identities and websites, is too narrow. Positioning it purely as problem solving is too broad. One could attempt to bridge the two and say that design is a problem solving process that may result in an identity or a website, but that still doesn’t do it justice. Intangibles such as services and processes can be designed conceptually, and their basic function modeled visually, but the end result lives in the experience of it and the outcome — like, say, an optimized document management workflow that improves findability or a streamlined hospital admissions process that reduces wait times.

As design’s application extends and its impact increases, its inner complexity grows. New subsets of design practice emerge to satisfy new needs. New methods and tools start to complement the traditional design arsenal. And, inevitably, new players enter the marketplace wielding new expertise. Consider the many flavors of design that exist, and how many new words have been added to the design lexicon just in the past 5-10 years (not exhaustive and in no particular order):

  • Strategic design
  • Transformation design
  • Service design
  • Social business design
  • Experience design
  • Interaction design
  • Design thinking
  • Sustainable design
  • Infographic design
  • Information design
  • Graphic design
  • Communications design
  • Publication design
  • Web design
  • Environmental design
  • Product design
  • Industrial design
  • Motion graphics design
  • Architecture
  • Information architecture
  • Game design
  • Fashion design
  • Et cetera

To me, the primary challenge becomes making sense of all these “designs” for the benefit of the profession at large. Some design disciplines are better defined than others, but is there a hierarchy or unifying structure here? Are we just tossing words around, or are there genuine differences among the newer design phenomena? Can we create some governing logic about design? Has anything come close?

If we can succeed in mapping the landscape of design in any meaningful way, perhaps we can start to tackle the second challenge: understanding and aligning needs to the right services and ultimately, to the right service providers. This is an immensely difficult task given the nature of our free market economy and the multitude of players in the market, not to mention defining what needs design can really address (all of them?). Professional organizations like AIGA have worked to define what design business should look like (running a business, conducting business, etc.), but what about the initial contact between designer and client? How would a client know if they’re engaging the right designer or agency to help them? The converse — a designer or agency knowing if they’re the right ones to take on the work — is a trickier subject, since a common approach is to secure the work first, then scramble to figure out how to do it afterwards, regardless of capability. So how do we set professional boundaries around design practices? Can we certify designers and agencies to practice certain types of design and not others? And how do we protect people from design fraud? Is any of this possible?

It would be great if there was some governing body to make all these distinctions and set standards of practice, like a Better Business Bureau for design. Something like an AIGA on steroids and with the authority to enforce standards. How much power would such an organization wield? How many designers would be receptive to this idea?

Are we just accumulating more unanswerable questions than answers?

Next and final installment (coming soon): The World Can Change Design


In Praise of the Design Underdog

June 23, 2011

The rant continues from Over Design, in all its crudeness…

At one time, graphic design was about as sexy as chimney sweeping. It was messy, unglamorous, and quite labor intensive, even as technology afforded the profession new tools and enhanced methods of production over time. It was truly an art, a craft, and a science all in one. Those who chose the path of the designer likely did so out of sheer necessity and market demand, as graphic arts and printing services went hand-in-hand, although there were probably those innately drawn to graphic design work as well. There was no fame or fortune in it — just a job, really — and if one got to flex their artistic and creative skills while doing it, all the better.

More recently, the designer’s skillset and toolset have been radically simplified and consolidated thanks to the computer, so there’s less craft involved. Without the burden of rubber cement and proportion wheels, designers could produce more work faster and were thus freed up to explore the more self-expressive side of graphic design work. So began the rise of design culture — design by and for designers — and the emergence of design as a lifestyle.

Becoming a designer these days is essentially a socialization process. To really make it in design, you need to start by going to the right school, following a legacy system of design education (that is, become a student of so-and-so who studied under so-and-so, ad nauseum), and really designing yourself from head to toe with the right specs, the right wardrobe, the right gadgets, and the right social life. Once you graduate, you can plug right into the professional network that your design school affords you. From there you ply your trade among the top shops, producing killer, award-winning “creative” for deep-pocketed clients. You gradually ascend the ranks, annual after annual, conference after conference, until you find yourself feeding into the very system that made you, spawning the next generation of aspiring designers.

Of course, it’s unfair to make such sweeping generalizations about designers according to some chic urban design stereotype popularized by the design press. The spectrum of designers is far more diverse than that. I want to shift the focus away from the spotlight of design culture and specifically focus on the unsung designer who carries on the tradition and the spirit of the early designers, quietly toiling away in the shadows: the design underdog.

Here is a short profile of the design underdog:

  • Went to a non-design school to study design and gain exposure to a broad range of disciplines and intellectual pursuits
  • Learns the tools and techniques of design inside and out, often spending long hours at the computer mastering key commands and shortcuts
  • Loves typography, but disinterested in fonts (there is a difference)
  • Loves design history, but bored by design celebrity (also a difference there)
  • Irritated by “show and tell” design lectures and the schmoozing that goes with them
  • Tends to work in lesser-known agencies, in-house design departments, and print shops
  • Delights in challenging work that has impact and practical value, even if it might never grace the pages of a design annual
  • Works long hours to get the client presentation done right while others just get the job done and go home
  • More interested in client recognition than peer recognition through design competitions
  • Often spends more time trying to understand a problem and what the client needs than on the graphic design of the solution and whether it will look cool
  • Makes little to no effort to assume the designer look (often can’t afford it or the workplace doesn’t call for it)

Design underdogs do the dirty work of figuring stuff out, making things work. They see the job through from start to finish. They put the client first, and reflect that commitment in every aspect of their work. They keep trying until they nail it — even if it means occasional late nights or skipping some social event. They care above all about doing the work right.

The point here isn’t to just shift the spotlight to the underdogs and place them on a pedestal for all their hard work and dedication while spiting everyone else. Not at all. It’s that, on some level, all designers should aspire to be the underdogs. If design is now a navel-gazing profession that sees the world through itself, then it’s time we invert that model and see ourselves as the world sees us and use that perspective to frame our work and our role in the world. The public perception of design should be less glossy and superficial, more textured and deep. The value of design should be that it doesn’t just make you look better — it helps you live better and do better as a human being, organization, or society. Designers’ priority should be to deliver on that promise.

More to come in the next post: The Boundaries of Design


Over Design

June 22, 2011

This is going to be messy and abrupt, but let me get one thing out in the open: design makes me sick. But to be more precise, what design and designers have become is what makes me sick — a self-sustaining microcosm that hopelessly struggles with its own identity and relevance in a warp-speed world of change and complexity. It lives in an endless cycle of reinvention and differentiation, year after year. Just look at any design blog and you’ll see an overabundance of design stuff, from typefaces to stock photo collections to paper varieties to software to agencies to new specializations. Design thinking, design research, transformation design, sustainable design, are all fighting for attention on magazine covers and in the marketplace, where consumers of design service are left scratching their heads. It’s a dizzying mess.

As a designer who cares about his work and the future of his profession, I feel that the integrity of design as a profession today has been compromised to a degree that it may never snap back to true (if ever it was true). I worry that designers have created a culture for themselves that is too self congratulating and not service- or people-oriented enough. Perhaps my notion of design fundamentally as a service to others, whether they’re individuals, corporations, or societies, is getting outdated. Some would argue that designers must inherently serve themselves and gain as much gratification as possible from their efforts, as if praise and self-satisfaction were far greater payment for “services” rendered than customer satisfaction and financial compensation.

I think framing this problem of what design and designers should and shouldn’t be is just as hard as addressing it in any meaningful way. I acknowledge that the argument is far too subjective and prone to a number of biases. Nevertheless, in coming posts I’ll do my best to present my thinking and probably step on a few toes in the process.

Stay tuned for the next installment: In Praise of the Design Underdog


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