Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The common mistake of seeing design as a particular field or profession

I have written here before about the mistake of seeing design as a profession and/or a discipline. To me, design is an approach, a way of approaching reality with the purpose to change it. There are no given design areas or disciplines. Instead it is the nature of the problem/situation that usually determines what is a field or discipline. So, for instance, graphic design is a field that has to do with graphic and visual artifacts, architecture is a field that engages with buildings and structure, etc. They are not by nature design fields or disciplines.

Graphic design has some similarities with architecture of course. Some of those similarities can be seen as related to materials, surfaces and structures. Some similarities have to do with how people perceive forms, shapes and colors and their combinations. To me it is obvious that you can approach these qualities either with a scientific approach or with a designerly approach or with a combination. This means that graphic design and architecture can, depending on how we understand them, be seen either as two science based disciplines or two design based disciplines.

This is why it becomes so confusing when people or companies try to state what design is based only on their experiences in one field and only from one persepctive. For instance, Zillions Design (a logo design company) puts out what they call a Periodic Table of Winning Design Elements. They write:

"The following infographic on the Periodic Table of Winning Design Elements, completely sums up what goes on in the design field right from what basic skills designers need to have to design elements to how to handle clients."

Of course they don't mean that this is table in a comprehensive way describes all design elements for all design areas. They probably think about logo design. But they don't state that, which is unfortunate. It creates a lot of confusion. It is possible to develop a periodic table of design elements that is meant to be true for all design areas (see my book "The Design way" as an attempt to do that). I would welcome anyone who would engage in the attempt to further an understanding of design, not as a discipline or profession, but as an overall human approach of inquiry and action that can deliver outcomes that other approaches (science, art, politics, etc) can not.


Ricardo Sosa said...

Fair point and makes me wonder what are the implications of viewing design as an approach rather than a discipline. Also, by contrasting it vs. scientific approach(es), what do we mean then by "design science"? Teaching design to non-designers has helped me appreciate more fully the differences between learning to do design vs. learning to become a designer.

Erik Stolterman said...

Thanks Ricardo for an interesting comment. You are right that when you start to think about these terms it becomes complicated, but I believe that is not something that can be avoided. It is complicated :-) and it is worth the effort to think more about it and to try to define terms so they work.

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