What is Design, Anyway?

A phone displaying the definition of the word "Design".
A phone displaying the definition of the word “Design”.

When the word ‘Design’ is uttered a whole host of thoughts come to mind; some people relate it to other words like Art and Creativity or job titles like Interior Designer, Architect, UX and UI. Whilst all of these are related, and to some extent true, it differs wildly between people and professional domains. In this post I’ll attempt to clear up any confusion when we talk about Design in the Startup and Software industry, what we really mean by Design and its relationship to User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) Designers.

A Metaphor

The best example I know of that is somewhat relatable to most people is when designing a room. Let’s try a quick exercise – try to write down and answer these questions first, before reading my explanation below and see if you agree.

  1. What does an ‘Interior Designer’ do when designing a room?
  2. Who is responsible for decorating the room, adding things like curtains, lampshades, colours textures and figurines?

Got it? Write them down!

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So, shall we compare notes?

What does an ‘Interior Designer’ do when designing a room?“. Well, this person is responsible for thinking about furniture, layout, flow of people, lighting and space optimisation. A great example are those home improvement TV shows where the trend is always to turn a kitchen and dining-living room into an open plan space by knocking down the walkway walls leading to the kitchen. Not only is this person going to work at the surface layer and add furniture, wallpaper and decor but they look at the structural changes, the usage of rooms or spaces in relation to each other and sometimes get involved in those activities too. They are designing the room using a very broad scope, and heavily influence how the room can be perceived and used.

…but they look at the structural changes, the usage of rooms or spaces in relation to each other…

Who is responsible for decorating the room, adding things like curtains, lampshades, colours textures and figurines?“. This is a slightly loaded question, but it does illustrate the point I’m trying to make very well. Anyone can decorate a room and many people do, choosing what type of bedding, cushions, curtains and flooring to put in. There are professional Decorators who can make more informed suggestions and present a broader range of possible options available and implement them to a high standard. The one important note to take away here is a decorator isn’t designing the room per se, but is able to discover the options available based on how the room has been designed, or alter the existing design by adding, removing or adjusting the contents of the room.

What must be said though is that there is a grey area between the responsibilities of these two people, and that can in turn be shared with responsibilities from other roles or indeed include other responsibilities or aspects that they aren’t normally concerned with. In rarer cases someone will take over both roles, and there are two distinct jobs and roles here. For example both roles are more than entitled to pick and choose the wallpaper they think best suits the room being worked on, or conversely one Interior Designer may leave that choice up to the client or decorator and provide guidance only.

What about the Startup/Software industry?

Continuing from our metaphor the two mirror job titles we have for the Interior Designer and the Decorator are UX and UI Designers, respectively. Interior Design is all about creating possibilities and creating the way the room works and functions, just like a UX Designer will be an agent and catalyst within a company to craft the design of how software and products should solve a problem for its users. Decorating and UI Design is much the same, geared towards utilising what’s there but not simply ‘dressing up’ what exists; their responsibility is enhancing and downplaying aspects as necessary in a more rapid iterative fashion to evoke the desired human perception.

…UI Design is much the same, geared towards utilising what’s there but not simply ‘dressing up’ what exists…

Neither will act on their own to fulfil their duties, and more often than not rely on advice and expertise from others such as builders, contractors, developers and investors. Collaboration and cooperation for all those involved, together with a consistent vision, can help achieve a cohesive design that not only works well for the end users but also for those involved continuing to craft it and any future specialists. What you might say is that ultimately, Design in the best case is the word we use to describe a collection of decisions made by a group of people in order to manifest a product or service.

Brief Definitions

To try and summarise what we’ve explored (and for those pesky skim readers who just want to be told!), here’s a few definitions you can use to help discuss what Design really means with other people:

  • Design: By this we mean “how does it work?”. It’s not just the visual structure, colours and materials but also the choices made such as the materials it’s composed of, technology choices like frameworks and languages. These are complex decisions made and influenced by everyone involved on a product or service where each one affects how it’s built, how fast it’s built and how it can be used and received by people.
  • UX Designer: Someone acting as an agent or catalyst for the experience that someone has when using a product or service. Often they will be involved in crafting, structuring and collaborating with Developers, Project Managers and various Stakeholders as well absorbing responsibility for some surface layer decisions or implementations like colours, sizes, fonts and ‘pixel pushing’. This is more about how something should work, and extracting first-hand research from real users to feedback and adjust the Design.
  • UI Designer: Not only responsible for screen design but also anything a person can interact with such as user manuals or copy for notifications. This person is further towards the ‘implementation’ end of the spectrum and will often have some development skills and is more concerned about manifesting the final fit and finish of products. Some may be Frontend Developers in disguise and are experts in interface best-practices such as Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines or using a design language like Google’s Material Design.

Conclusion

We’ve explored what Design really means by using a metaphor of Interior Designers and Decorators. Just as the former will create and compose the design whilst the other one will alter or augment it, the same happens with a UX Designer and UI Designer respectively. Keep in mind that there is grey area and overlap both between the respective roles and with other roles seemingly unrelated to Design. You can find someone who can do both but this is not the norm, not to a good standard at least, just like asking for a Developer-cum-DevOps Engineer is a scarcity. At the end of a day Design is how something works; it’s a culmination of complex decisions that can be made easier with a UX Designer, or distributing some UX skills amongst those in your team.

I’ll leave you with a thinker next time the word ‘Design’ comes to mind:

Apple’s iconic iPod wasn’t really designed to be white, black, pretty or have a colour display – it was designed to fit in anyone’s pocket; it was designed to be easy to upload your music to; it was designed to make the previously monotonous and difficult task of scrolling up and down on a mobile device ridiculously easy.

 

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