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What Does Design Actually Mean?

Marcin Treder
By Marcin Treder on 19th August, 2013

Design is a funny word. Mention it in a conversation and it adds value without adding a precise meaning. If you hear “that’s the great design” do you know exactly what your interlocutor meant by that? Aesthetics? Function? Both?

How about “I’m a designer”? A couple of months ago I was presenting for a group of experienced Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. One gentleman in his late 60’s told me after the presentation “I’m a designer as well. I used to design circuits”. Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of design I can understand, so we didn’t find common ground.

Design is a dangerously obscure term. Especially in the Age of Design in which “good design” mark might be a highway to success for any product and “bad design” may doom anything.

Diving deep into the nature of design can give us some kind of clear view for the matter, so let’s get back to pure words and try to define design in a general way:

What Is Design? 

1. Dictionary Definition of Design

Design is the creation of a plan or convention for the construction of an object or a system (as in architectural blueprints, engineering drawings, business processes, circuit diagrams, and sewing patterns). Design has different connotations in different fields.

(Source: Cambridge Dictionary of American English)

2. Design Etymology

Design (verb):
The 1540s, from Latin, design are “mark out, devise, choose, designate, appoint,” from de- “out” + signature “to mark,” from signum “a mark, sign”. Originally in English with the meaning now attached to designate; many modern uses of design are metaphoric extensions.

Design (noun):
The 1580s, from Middle French desseign “purpose, project, design,” from Italian disegno, from disegnare “to mark out,” from Latin designare “to mark out” (see design (v.)).

(Source: Etymology Dictionary)

3. From Design Authorities

DESIGN: (noun) a specification of an object, manifested by some agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to some constraints.

(Source: Ralph, P. and Wand, Y. (2009). A proposal for a formal definition of the design concept. In Lyytinen, K., Loucopoulos, P., Mylopoulos, J., and Robinson, W., editors, Design Requirements Workshop (LNBIP 14), pp. 103–136. Springer-Verlag, p. 109)

To design is to devise courses of action aimed at changing existing situations
into preferred ones

Herbert Simon, Nobel laureate

Getting To A Better Understanding of Design’s Meaning

The common notion in all the definitions seems to be regarding design as to purposeful action, a plan of solving a particular problem. Design, regardless of the particular pragmatic discipline, is a deliberate set of actions that are meant to provide value for the receiver of a “designed thing”.

The term Design will gain a deeper meaning by thinking about it like this. Design is more than aesthetics. Design is more than just a planing function. It’s about giving meaning to something. It’s about the experience. That’s why the concept of the design transcends single disciplines and can be applied to the web, mobile, software, fashion, industrial, interiors, etc.

Isn’t that something?
Here’s a little graphic representation of a design definition. Let’s continue the conversation around what design means to each of us and how we understand it.

Design Definition


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