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What is design? Design is not art

Art is a creation of which the main purpose is to convey an emotion.

We can nicely separate some things that are sometimes confused with art:

  • Entertainment, which artists sometimes create to make a living while practicing their skills
  • Kitsch, which imitates art, but is intended to be decorative or as a status symbol
  • Decoration, which is added to things to make them less ugly or boring, or do some cultural signaling. Decoration often occurs as part of a design.

Once, a mid-level manager showed up to our team. With a big smile, he loudly asked “Hellooo, how are my artists doing!?” Painful. He didn’t just have no clue about design, but worse: he had no idea why art is made.

How do such people get so confused? My guess it’s because designers and artists have several tools and skills in common. Designers use the same pencils, paper and markers that artists use. Both in art and design it’s common to make sketches and ever more detailed drawings before using botching up a big expensive piece of marble/injection molding steel.

Artists and designers may (occasionally) use expensive pens and markers, but that hardly makes art and design overlap.

Why then is design taught at art schools?

Designers and artists take inspiration from each other. Graphic arts and graphic design follow similar trends and movements. Art and design share a history. There is a whole art form of making objects mimicking useful products to make statements. This is the kind of design taught at art schools that in my view is really not design.

Then there’s the whole decorative design tradition that has solid roots in art. From back when the engineer build the steam engine and some artist was allowed to paint over it to make it pretty. Perhaps this is why so many still think design is there only to make things look good. But we’ve known for over a century now that good design is created when looks and function are developed together.

Design isn’t about just visual skills or making things nice.

Art is not part of design

If an artist makes sketches or a specification before creating the final piece, I’d also consider that design. The design of an artwork. But that doesn’t make all of art creation design and it definitely doesn’t make design art.

Design is not engineering

Engineering is about making technical machines or systems do something with a purpose. In product development, that purpose is creating products according to specifications.

Engineering takes a lot of time. More than design usually.

You save time and costs by having a plan—a design—before starting engineering.

But let’s be honest: some engineers can do a good bit of design too. After all, if design is about making the plan to produce something, what does the engineer do, taking over from the designer?

In industrial design there’s usually a step where the technical drawings created by a designer are handed over to an engineer. The engineer then adds more details and improves them. Mainly to make sure the products don’t break during or after production. The activity of technical drawing looks just like the designer drawing, but the purpose there is to make sure that machines can build the product well.

Similarly, in web design a designer could specify components in CSS. The designer’s goal here should be an efficient handover of design specs to the engineer. But it’s still up to the engineer to check that code’s validity and improve it where necessary before adding it to the production code: the instructions for users’ machines to present the product.

Sometimes design specs include instructions for machines. That doesn’t mean all of design is part of engineering though. The specification phase of a design can include machine instructions, but it’s not a given. And you can also create designs for handmade objects and services. Some design work is engineering, but the essence of design is not.

Design is not product management

A typical team has:

  • Designers
  • Engineers
  • Product managers
  • Business people

I’ve never met a person who confused business with design. But the borders between product management and design can sometimes be blurry.

The bare minimum of a design is a plan for the dimensions, appearance and behavior of a product once it’s in the user’s possession. It doesn’t necessarily include a plan for the development process. That’s where PM can come in. Product managers make temporal plans and processes. Product management is organizational.

So, what is design?

And designing a part of a production machine is also engineering.

That means designers design for people . Designers make sure a new service makes sense to the people they design for. That products have useful functions. That they’re pleasant to use. That they’re desired. Design is shorthand for user-centered design and user-centric design. That leads me to the following definition:

A design is a plan to make something new for people, that they perceive as beneficial.

Wrap up

When you design, you’re doing all kinds of things, like:

  • User research
  • Analysing competing services
  • Getting Dunning-Krugered into believing we understand our target market
  • Writing on post its
  • Sketching
  • Hanging out with engineers

Others see designers doing that and also see it in other professions. That sometimes confuses them. But only designers make the plan to build the new thing. That’s no one else’s job.

That said, design happens in many professions and not just in product development. Everything ever created has been designed. Sometimes consciously, at other times not so much.

Design makes products successful because going straight to engineering would almost certainly increase costs.

Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning.