What is Design?

“Taking products from being usable to delightful, and then beyond that — to meaningful.”

Google Design

While Google isn’t the ultimate authority on what design is and isn’t, their definition does highlight three things that can help us define the overall concept of “design.”

  1. Design makes things do what they are intended to do.
    What you design has to be able to accomplish its intended purpose, otherwise it doesn’t matter how good it looks or makes you feel.
  2. Design creates delight for users.
    What you design has to have the capacity to create delight. Delight speaks to a few different factors: Functionality, reliability, and usability. If something does what it is intended to do, does it reliably, and does it in a way that does not require much effort on the part of the “user,” it is said to spark delight. Delight can also refer to any positive emotional effect that a user may have when interacting with media. User delight may not always be expressed outwardly but it can influence the behaviors and opinions formulated while consuming visual media, which is why we want to try and harness it.

    Aarron Walter, in his book “Designing for Emotion,” describes a hierarchy of user needs that closely mirrors Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Walter posits that superior needs (such as pleasure and delight — at the very top of the pyramid) can only be achieved after more foundational ones (such as functionality and usability) are fulfilled.
  3. Design creates meaning for users.
    Even the most simple designs can enrich users’ lives. It would be nearly impossible to design for “meaningfulness” without understanding its five interrelated components:
  • ConnectednessThe experience should connect to the user on a personal level. Meaning exists through the feeling of connection with the various aspects of the self, the people around us, and the world we live in.
  • CoherenceThe experience should make sense. People experience coherence when they reflect on their experience and understand it in relation to their life in general.
  • PurposeThe experience should give the user a sense of direction towards a goal. Having goals is a way for people to construct and impose meaning in their lives. Goals allow people to connect their efforts into overarching themes.
  • ResonanceThe experience should feel right. There are experiences that are intuitively meaningful; profound moments in life when everything makes sense and feels right. Examples would be tiny epiphanies we get from reading a poem, or the feeling we get gazing at an awesome landscape. Visual communication can achieve this.
  • SignificanceThe experience should be worthwhile. People want to make a difference; that their life experiences matter beyond their individual selves thereby making them non-trivial and precious.

Ultimately, we want to design things that not only work as they are supposed to, but are also dependable, enjoyable to use, and help users find meaning in their lives.

Difference Between Design and Art

It is important to make a distinction between design and art.

Art is primarily about expression. It is subjective. People think it is good or bad based on their personal feelings and opinions. Any choices made by the artist to produce the work are valid because they are a result of the individual expression of the artist and are guided by their creativity. There is no right or wrong way, necessarily. While critique and discussion of a work of art can increase our understanding of its purpose and history, its effectiveness is open to interpretation.

Design is about intention. It concerns creating something for a purpose, not just entertaining or visually dazzling the viewer. Elements are chosen and placed on the page or screen with specific attention paid to how they will guide the viewer’s eyes and help them consume the information being presented. A trained designer can objectively judge the effectiveness of visual media based on established principles.


Next: The Elements of Design