What Is Design?

Do you ever have difficulty explaining to others, let alone your mother, what exactly it is that you do for a living, or what design actually is?

It seems that when I try to explain design, I get hung up somewhere between explaining the process, and giving a laundry list of outcomes (e.g., brochure, logo, website, etc.).

The conversation usually goes like this:

“What is it that you do?”

“I’m a designer.”

“So what is it that you do?”

“I design logos and brochures and…”

“So what exactly do you do?”

“I create ads and other printed communications.”

“Oh, so you’re a computer guy.”

“Yeah… something like that.”

It’s always frustrating that as communication professionals, we have a difficult time explaining exactly what we do. Perhaps it’s not so much that we can’t explain it, but we need to define it.

This definition of design seems to have struck a chord with designers, software engineers, and others from around the world:

“Design consists of creating things for clients who may not know what they want, until they see what you’ve done, then they know exactly what they want, but it’s not what you did.”

I know it sounds cynical on the surface, but I think it’s accurate in many ways. Of course it’s not always the rule, since there are plenty of clients who commission design projects who have a realistic expectation and an understanding of what they need.

As designers, we are constantly dealing with ambiguity, focusing and managing expectations, and leading toward an appropriate solution for the problem at hand.

And by the way, you have to do it on a deadline. No problem!

5 Responses to “What Is Design?”

  1. Avatar Jarrett Fuller

    I had a a conversation almost identical to that just the other day. Great post!

  2. Avatar gary

    Great. My wife of 13 years introduced me at a party: “He works with computers.”

  3. Avatar pixelZion

    Yeah, my wife gets it, she sees what I do…but my other family (mom, dad, uncles, etc.) they don’t get it. You’re a web designer? Basically, I’ve resorted to just going to a site, viewing source, and telling them that I write all that ‘stuff’ that makes a website. It seems easier than explaining anything else.


  4. Avatar Anonymous

    The short answer, if asked, might be: Design is shaping business identity and communications. Or: I’m a visual craftsman.

    One reasonable thing to do when confronted with the question of “what do you do?” is to either give a simple two word answer or ask them if they really are curious. Usually not, since people just want to pidgeonhole a stranger into a type of profession.


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