Defining design: is a universal definition possible?

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Design is a term that exists across a wide range of disciplines and has different connotations in each context. It has such a long and varied history, from architecture to fashion, industrial to graphic design, and each field describes the process of design with different nuances. Once you add terminology to the mix such as Human centred design (HCD), User centred design (UCD), User experience (UX), Service design, Design thinking… the boundaries of design as a discipline can start to feel even more indistinct and elusive.

Within the ever growing discipline of design, it feels as though we are constantly evolving the way we describe what we do as designers as often as we evolve the methods themselves. We experiment with different methods and frameworks, remix them, reflect on them and then iterate how we communicate that to each other and to others outside the field.

But are we missing a way to bring all these efforts together, so that rather than a multitude of definitions, we share one definition as a whole discipline? Or as designers do we tend to be quite comfortable with multiplicity and ambiguity, and have less need for a single agreed way to describe our broader industry and work?

In the opening chapters of This is Service Design Thinking by Marc Stickdorn and Jakob Schneider, there is a quote from Richard Buchanan (previously head of the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University) which posits that a common definition is perhaps not so necessary, and could in fact be a limitation:

“Frankly, one of the great strengths of design is that we have not settled on a single definition. Fields in which definition is now a settled matter tend to be lethargic, dying, or dead fields, where enquiry no longer provides challenges to what is accepted as truth”.

Stickdorn then acknowledges that service design is an evolving approach, and as such:

“a single definition of service design might constrain this evolving approach whereas a shared language is undoubtedly important for the growth and development of service design thinking.”

So how important, relevant or useful would a single agreed upon definition be for the discipline of design? Are the specialisations that exist within its umbrella too different to share a common core description? Are the boundaries too fuzzy to formally define?

The purpose of this article is to investigate some answers to these questions. To focus the scope of our exploration, we are homing in on the business context of defining design. We feel this is of value because we have often found a lack of shared understanding can adversely affect the potential impact of projects. It can also limit the extent to which designers are engaged at an appropriate time and for an appropriate purpose.

To that end, we have explored some different ideas and definitions that we have found to be valuable and thought provoking. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but something we have started as we consider some ways we could move towards more effectively describing and communicating the ever shifting discipline of design.

Design – a noun or a verb?

Designer Rob Peart explores a range of ideas around how the design industry could be defined and touches on some of the reasons it is so challenging to pin down:

“…the perennial problem of design: how on earth do you wrangle the discussion of an extremely diverse range of disciplines—from industrial to fashion and everything in between? The crux of the problem appears to be a side effect of using language indiscriminately; we use the word “design” as both a noun and as a verb, describing both the outcome and the process.”

This confusion between the process of design and the tangible outcomes or artefacts feels central to the challenge of communicating design. Describing the outputs of a design process as “the designs” understandably might lead audiences to believe that the outputs themselves are where all the effort is contained. A chair, a website, a magazine, a logo or a bicycle are tangible outcomes of a design process. But design as a noun becomes problematic when there are no tangible outputs from the process, but instead an experience is designed, or a service or system, and design is now a verb, describing the process. This can be more difficult to grasp, as the outcome is in fact intangible and invisible.

In his article So, what is design anyway?, Todd Olson, editor of the Design Innovator blog proposes a draft definition in an effort to move towards a definition of design as a discipline that is both simple and specific:

“design (verb), as a discipline: plan the creation of a product or service with the intention of improving human experience with respect to a specified problem.”

There is a particularly interesting conversation in the comments of the article in which the author discusses and debates with a reader about whether the definition of design as a discipline ought to be constrained to tangible applications and artefacts vs intangible outcomes.

Common (but understandable) misconceptions

Defining a human centred design process for our clients is an invaluable step in any project as it creates a shared understanding and a strong foundation from which to plan and execute a project. One of the key challenges we have encountered is tackling existing preconceptions that may exist within a given audience. One of the most pervasive preconceptions we have encountered is that design is the final phase of a project and it is only concerned with refining the aesthetic and visual appearance of something (usually a tangible object or product).

While the notion that design plays a role in ‘how something looksis not wholly untrue, it is central to the critical misconception that design is only concerned with the final appearance. In our experience, we have found that the misinterpretation of design as being connected to aesthetics alone goes hand in hand with the other crucial fallacy of it occurring in isolation at the tail end of a project.

It is this confusion about the role of design and the breadth and extent of its usefulness as a process that can become a real impediment to constructive conversations and effective project planning.

John Mathers of the UK Design Council identifies and questions this gap between the associations with aesthetics and the true potential of the discipline in his piece Defining design: going beyond disciplines:

“How has design, which many still associate largely with style and consumerism, come to be something one might look to for solutions to the most complex and challenging problems facing humanity today…?”.

Tangible and intangible outcomes of design

The Four orders of design model developed by Richard Buchanan describes design as an activity that can occur across four key areas, encompassing the tangible through to the less tangible and more abstract.


The four orders of design are concerned with symbols, things, actions and thoughts. Design as a process can be applied to each order: 1: visual communication 2: objects 3: interactions and experiences 4: systems.

Diagram adapted from the Four Orders of Design model developed by Richard Buchanan

We would hazard that while awareness of the third and fourth orders is rapidly growing, for many audiences their perception of design is anchored primarily to the first two orders.

Jared Spool discusses how the term design thinking has helped to shift the focus from the aesthetic to the end to end process (zooming out from the tangible orders to the more abstract):

make-it-pretty … comes from the way design is framed inside our society. When you add ‘thinking’ to the word ‘design’, it’s no longer about color or decoration. It’s now about process. It’s about getting to a more intentional outcome. It’s about thinking about the experience of the customer, user, and employee.”

He then goes on to elaborate that:

“Design Thinking is a shortcut for a new way for non-designers to approach design. It says:

  • We’re going to do things differently from how we’ve always done it before.
  • We’re going to study problems before we jump to solutions.
  • We’re going to treat requirements as assumptions and validate them.
  • We’re going to diverge on our best ideas before picking the one that matches the solution best.
  • We’re going to map the customer’s journey to see where we’ve made a mess of things.
  • We’re going to build multiple prototypes and watch users interact with them, to learn what’s best.”

(Side note: Design thinking, a term popularised by IDEO, has a long history dating back many decades. If you’re keen to know more, Jo Szczepanska has created this epic history lesson and origin story of design thinking  including an incredible timeline!)

Design beyond problem solving

Designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby explore how design is a tool that can be applied beyond problem solving in their book Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming:

“[we’re interested in] using design to open up all sorts of possibilities that can be discussed, debated, and used to collectively define a preferable future for a given group of people: from companies, to cities, to societies.”

This certainly resonates deeply as the true potential of design. However, does it represent an ambitious communication challenge for audiences with an existing understanding of design as something tangible and object based by defining it as something much more far-reaching?

Multiple definitions with common themes

In his journal article Wicked Problems in Design Thinking (Buchanan, Richard. “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking.” Design Issues, vol. 8, no. 2, 1992, pp. 5–21.) Buchanan suggests that across the four orders of design, there is some common ground that unites academics and practitioners across diverse design professions:

“they share a mutual interest in a common theme: the conception and planning of the artificial. Different definitions of design and different specifications of the methodology of design are variations of this broad theme…”

In our experience, we have found that the best way to communicate and define design really depends a lot on the type of audience you are communicating with. This often starts with considering the audiences’ background and field, as their industry will often determine their familiarity with design and the context they are used to.

While the idea of a common definition is alluring in many ways, one challenging aspect is certainly how meaningful it would be to different audiences. When describing our work as designers to one another, we tend to communicate quite differently than with business clients or those new to design. To be meaningful, we feel that a useful definition needs to consider the context and preconceptions of a given audience.

This starts to feel like a critical pivot away from a creating a common and universal definition of design as a discipline for all audiences. Perhaps rather than a single all encompassing definition, we could instead focus on how we might move towards a definition that can be used for a business audience to clearly communicate our field effectively.

Defining design for a business audience

To help us come up with a definition for this context, we have used a ‘How might we…’ question, to frame the aspects we are targeting:

How might we… consider existing mental models and preconceptions to create a shared definition of design that allows us to more meaningfully communicate as a whole discipline with business audiences?

In a business context we see the biggest aspect to clarify and emphasise is that the process of design informs how stuff works and that crucially it is something that is done from beginning to end, as a process that is integrated throughout a project.

And so in response to this HMW, we have drafted a definition as a starting point which focusses on emphasising these two aspects:

Design is a structured yet flexible process which begins before a project starts to carefully study and fully understand a problem before commencing work on a solution. Essential to the process is holistic thinking and challenging assumptions by viewing them as hypotheses to be tested and validated. It utilises evidence to inform and frame, and creativity, validation and iteration to generate and refine ideas and solutions. It is a process that can be applied to the tangible (visuals & objects) and intangible (interactions & systems) and is a tool for exploring possible futures.

What do you think?

We’d love to hear your thoughts! How do you define design? What definitions resonate the most for you? Do you think a shared definition would be useful for the design industry?

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