What’s “Design” Mean to You?

Leisa Reichelt calls herself a designer. Stowe Boyd calls himself a designer, too. Ryan Singer says he’s also a designer. Zeldman talks about design all the time.

I don’t mean to suggest for even a second that Leisa, Stowe, Ryan and Jeffrey aren’t designers. They’re just four people who, although they all work in the indernetz, do wildly different things. Talking and listening to them, and my discussion with Mathew Patterson the other day, got me thinking about how the folks who call themselves “designer” define what they do.

The web has exploded the concept of design. Once was the day that a designer was someone who made aesthetically pleasing things (that’s right, objects you could hold in your very own hands) which solved a problem. Sometimes the problem was a selling a new car, sometimes it was selling concert tickets, sometimes it was earning points for taste with your neighbours, and the list goes on and on. Although these are very different endeavours, all are called design, and there are also fancy, well-designed drawers for all of them: industrial design, graphic design, furniture design, and so on.

Now we’ve got “web design”, a drawer that’s full of folks who do funky stuff in photoshop, some who think and scribble, others who write HTML and CSS and quite a few mash-ups of the above.

Do you call yourself a designer? Think about design for a minute, and write a comment below and let me know:

  • What do you do every day?
  • How do you define “design”?
  • What parts of what you do are essential to your definition of design?

The more answers, the more interesting the comparisons, so even you lurkers and off-chance one-time-only visitors are encouraged to chime in.


  1. Thomas Jacob says:

    Me, I am a software architect. Software development starts with the design of the architecture, and while implementing the components, we use design patterns.

    Yes, I know that this kind of design was not the focus of this post, but think a second. There are many parallels between visual design and design of more internal, technical parts, at least in the heads of those geeks who “see” software. By the way, the parallels between architecture of buildings and of software are valid, too.

    Anyway, so what is design then? Maybe it’s the sketch of something that is about be elaborated in more detail later? An abstraction?

    Maybe too simple. But my try to find a common denominator for geeks and you, the designers.

  2. Craig says:

    I was thinking this very thing earlier today when thinking about exactly what it is that I do. My job varies so much from day to day that I’ve gone from calling myself a graphic designer, to web designer, and now finally settled on designer. But even that isn’t right, because I sometimes write copy, edit copy, proof-read copy and all the other bits broadly to do with design.

    But then when I create a website I write the CSS and XHTML, often write the CMS too, create the original Photoshop mockup, then do the SEO to round it off. Then I’ll tell the client what I’ve done, and if they like it. So what exactly is it that I should call myself? I don’t know. A maker. But that sounds less flashy and even more abstract than designer. At least people understand broadly what a designer does.

    Even if I don’t fully understand what the term design is. At it’s most basic, design is communicating an idea, thought or concept visually through whatever medium is required.

    To answer the last question, I think the most essential part of what I do to my definition of design is communication. Whether you’re dealing with clients, designing or even sending an eMail, you’re communicating. The single most important thing to me to do with design is communication. Too often that is forgotten in the pursuit of awards and a desire to produce the prettiest thing possible.

    Whoops. Rambled a bit there.

  3. Ronald Kunz says:

    What do you do every day?

    Ich versuche so wenig wie möglich zu gestalten. Gelingt mir leider viel zu selten, zu oft lass ich mich von meinen Augen hinreißen (die kleinen Luder wollen einfach betrogen werden)

    How do you define “design”?

    Ich versuche mich von nervigen Gestaltungselementen zu trennen und einer klaren konzeptionellen Idee zu folgen. Je länger ich Gestalte fällt mir Gestaltung um der Gestaltung willen schwerer. Ehrlich gesagt langweilt es mich.

    Dort wo Gestaltung zurücktreten kann weil die Idee stark ist fühle ich mich am wohlsten.

    Ich halte es grundsätzlich mit Monteverdi: Prima le parole, poi la musica.

    Design bedeutet mir konsequenter Weise nicht soooo viel. Genauso wie ich mit der bildenden Kunst wenig anfangen kann. Sie verschweigt mir zu viel, will immer ernst genommen werden (selbst wenn sie lustig ist) und will erkämpft sein. Musik ist da ganz anders, sie geht einfach in dich rein und stiftet in dir Schaden, Freude, Abneigung oder Zuneigung. Das gefällt mir. Außerdem kann man sie nicht angucken das ist sehr erholsam wenn der Beruf eigentlich nur aus gucken besteht.

    Sagmeister fragte: Is it possible to touch someone’s heart with design?

    Ich frage mich ob es möglich ist Design zu machen, das man nicht merkt und trotzdem gut findet.

    Das ist natürlich haarscharf an der Grenze zur absoluten Beliebigkeit aber das macht mich eigenartig heiß.

    Hui das ist ja knüppeldicke an der Frage vorbei aber es ist ja auch eine schwere Frage.

    What parts of what you do are essential to your definition of design?

    Mit Leuten sprechen die nichts mit Design am Hut haben.

    Zum geschriebenen -> schon morgen könnte meine Meinung eine Andere sein und ich lobe die feinen, kleinen, knuffigen Gestaltungselemente zur Rettung aus. Vielleicht ist das meine Definition von Design, morgen anderer Meinung sein zu dürfen.

  4. Looks like we both had the same idea Matt – http://mathewpatterson.com/index.php/mp/comments/web_designer_or_html_css_developer/

    There’s nothing to stop anyone from claiming to be a web designer – there’s no defined scope, no required qualifications.

    That is generally a good thing, in my opinion, but it does make it tricky to generalise about web designers.

  5. Ryan Singer says:

    What do you do every day?
    I design architecture… ( not web architecture ) the spaces we live in..

    How do you define “design”?
    For me, design really is more like transcribing my feelings into a 3 dimensional composition that works with building technologies. most ideas come from intuition, gut, dreams, client’s goals, understanding what the client intends without using words… a focus on quality and thinking through the construction and use. an overall vision that entails many facets to ultimately create and enjoyable and usable experience.

    What parts of what you do are essential to your definition of design?
    I’d have to say intuition, people skills and compassion for one’s goals are weighted a little more heavily. Construction or implementation is becoming more and more important to pay attention to. There are many new technologies to educate myself on and staying current seems to be important these days.

    it’s interesting to read your name on the web and see someone is doing design in a different sense than you. I’m glad to know Ryan Singer from 37 Signals is out there designing as well. good luck to you!

    the other Ryan Singer – “designer”

  6. Matt Balara says:

    Quite diverse answers. I was expecting more similar answers.

    @Mathew: yeah, similar ideas, but what is design to you?

    As for me:
    I design web sites daily, which means quite a lot of thought which leads to scribbles and Photoshop files which I pass along to the frontend developers in the agency where I work.

    Design is problem solving. Sounds short and simple. In my experience design is often seen as window-dressing or decoration, i.e aesthetics. And in my company the process usually grows out of this assumption. But all processes are a chain, and if you haven’t inspected the first link, you’re weakening all the links attached to it.

    Good design must grow out of an understanding of the real problem, i.e. the first link. If you start too far along the chain you are indeed only decorating. The largest, and most valuable part of design is the thinking that informs the aesthetic end-result.