The Boundaries of Design

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