Friday, April 09, 2021

What isn't design?

“Design is a reflective conversation with the situation.”
— Donald Schön

On social media Ed Devane asked the provocative question: “So, what isn't design?” This article will sketch out an answer, by first considering what design is.

Defining design

Design is a process that can be outlined as follows:
1. define goals
2. investigate and analyse
3. brainstorm solutions
4. apply constraints
5. prototype a solution
6. test prototype against goals
7. evaluate

This process is repeated until the goals are sufficiently met, or until one runs out of resources (usually time or money).

Any such linear sequence over-simplifies the iterative process that the designer must be living, in a continuum of observation, free-thinking, and analysis. Various authors have proposed lists with a different number of terms, but they are generally equivalent to the above.

Studies tell us that a successful designers are open to experience, sensitive to their environment, able to notice patterns (in both things and events), ready to seize opportunities, and able to identify favourable outcomes.

Designers can accept criticism, discard what doesn't work, and share their work and experience. They are inherently optimistic, since they regularly work in a zone of flux and uncertainty. They must commonly accept results that fall short of their ideal goal. Some people might be frustrated by this, but designers learn and move on to the next project.

Design domains

Domains in which design is prominent include product and industrial design. Architecture is most definitely a design discipline, as is much of engineering. This includes interior design, urban planning, and related fields. 

Perhaps due to the influence of the Bauhaus, design is also used to describe the applied arts, including graphic design and typography, fashion and textile design, furniture design, scenography, and the decorative arts. The former distinction between fine art and commercial art now seems quaint. Indeed, these terms, common until the 1960s, are now rarely used.

Software creation is definitely a design process. Included under this banner are systems architecture, user experience design, user interface design, web design, game design, and information architecture.

Is science design?

The scientific method starts with empirical observations that spark questions, from which a hypothesis is formulated. Known facts are applied, experiments are conducted to test the hypothesis, data is analysed, and conclusions reached. This process involves iteration and refinement, hence appearing to be largely congruent with the design process.

But there are fundamental differences. Scientific research is not about constructing things or even organisations of things. Although this may be a necessary part of the process, it is not the goal. Rather, the goal is the proving of a hypothesis, which is a conjecture, an idea. A hypothesis is tested by first deriving predictions. These predictions, not the original hypothesis, are then tested against observable outcomes.

Furthermore, a hypothesis must be falsifiable. The experiment must be able to produce results that confirm or deny the hypothesis, else it is not meaningful. This has no equivalent in the design process.

While readers who have studied the philosophy of science will no doubt find this gloss insufficient, the conclusion is nonetheless sound. Scientific research is not design. 

Is art design?

The Romantic idea that an artist is driven by inspiration, whether from some metaphysical power or internal energy, has persisted long past its useful lifespan. Analysing actual examples demonstrates that inspiration often derives from the interrogation of the environment within a context of tacit knowledge and a rehearsed skill-set. The more artists become explicitly aware of their methods and constraints, the more successful they can become. This is why arts education emphasises portfolios, mark-making, and other developmental processes. 

It is clear, then, that art involves problem-solving, and to this degree shares attributes with design. The ongoing debate between these disciplines generally focuses on two terms: aesthetics and functionality. Design is fundamentally about deriving functional solutions to a problem, which optimally will also be aesthetically pleasing. Whereas art to a greater degree interrogates aesthetics and personal practice. While it might also have functional by-products, these are secondary.

Of course the term “art” covers such a wide gamut of activities that no one answer to this question will ever suffice. The fields of gaming and Interactive art utilise a significant technological substrate and hence have a higher degree of functionality than, say, a musical composition. It is therefore easier to see products of these fields as the results of design.

Consider also that design is largely objective, since it must serve a target user base and client. The results are continuously tested against external criteria. Pure art (whatever that is!) is largely subjective, a personal response to a situation. But in practice, whether creating a play for theatre, a painting for a patron, a film for a screening, or an installation for a gallery, very practical external constraints act on the artist. Nonetheless, an artist (in an ideal situation) has a certain freedom of expression that a designer (even if in an ideal situation) does not.

It is clear that art and design form a continuum of utility/aesthetics, as well as a continuum of objective/subjective constraints. But while both terms are used as labels for disciplines, they are more usefully considered as practices

It follows that contemporary artists can benefit from design thinking, even if a design workflow applies to their work in varying degrees. Artists can also benefit from adopting the characteristics of good designers mentioned above, even if (or especially as) many of these contradict the cliché view of artistic behaviour.


In my own life, I have studied design thinking in order to develop a more thoughtful, efficient, and goal-oriented practice. Work is more enjoyable when I meet deadlines and finish projects. The ability to “abandon” work before it is perfected is essential for progress to occur. Otherwise one never finishes anything... a common problem among artists who have yet to develop a mature workflow.

In a varied career, I have applied design thinking to computer programming, project management, visual design, film-making, and sound installation... among other practices. As a lecturer in art and technology, I teach design practice as a fitting preparation for a world of flux and mutability. As such, I can summarise in one statement the relationship between design and art:

Design is a formal process that artists can utilise as part of their practice, especially when there are stake-holders, other than themselves, who rely on the outcomes.


Ambrose, Gavin and Paul Harris. 2009. Basics Design: Design Thinking. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing.

Cross, Nigel. 2011. Design Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

Norman, Donald. 2013. The Design of Everyday Things. Revised and expanded. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Basic Books.

Schön, Donald. 1983. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. London: Temple Smith.


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