What is not Design and a few cautious ideas on what it might be

There are some questions our society is still unable to answer. Who are we? What’s the purpose of it all? What’s the meaning of life? They are deep philosophical questions that involve intense reflecting and discussing. I believe it is very important to think and talk about them, to exchange ideas, to let the mind flow; maybe even more than positivize and answer. When we get this deep into philosophy, sometimes the path is more important than the ending.

But I’m not here to try to answer or give my view in any of these big questions, and I guess you reader didn’t come here for that as well. Aside from them, other many subjects remain open for discussion in most areas of knowledge, which is the reason why we are still researching and talking about them. Science stops when the will to reveal new mysteries is gone [1]. So instead of trying to find definite answers, what I want here is to stir up questions, things that make me think and may spark something in you as well. This is a blog on creativity and design, with the intention to make people think in an area dominated by know-it-alls. Of course I am no absolute expert and may be nonsensical, but from nonsense to nonsense we can achieve new understandings and philosophize together.

A cautious ontology (or whatever it means)

My interest here is finding what’s behind (and then question it). We see several methodologies, designers, engineers, book writers saying “this is how you should design”, “use these simple steps and develop the perfect solution”, “this is a full set of methods that you can use for ANYTHING in your life”, “do the job of 3 months in 3 hours!”. These sentences themselves should readily light red lights and buzzing alarms in everyone’s mind, especially if it comes with “and get rich!”.

Many people affirm they have the answers, and that their methods and techniques can save your design. We should be cautious about it. Design is a very intricated and philosophical area, with many meanings and many nuances. It is unreasonable to think that a simple formula will solve everything, even if you force it to fit. There lays the importance of a experienced designer: to perceive the context and adapt a little bit of everything to that scenario, no miraculous tricks attached. But to do so, he or she should be critical, learn what to absorb and what to discard, and mainly think.

Design processes vary with many, many conditions. It depends on what we are trying to develop, with whom, for whom, why is it necessary, and only when we have glimpses of these answers we can ask ourselves how. Is the development of the customer experience of a hotel equal to the one of an airplane? Is it reasonable to use the same methods to design something when we are alone and when we are in a 10 person group? Is there any way that the process we use to develop products in an IT startup will fit perfectly in a 100-year industrial engineering context? Well… I don’t think so. That’s the main reason we always have to adapt and think about what are we doing.

A cautious origin of design

I can’t go any further here without asking the main question, that underlies everything I said before: what the hell is design? I have no idea how to give a full answer to that. The concept of design has changed and is still evolving as you read this. Some say it started along with the first industrial revolution (17th century), when handcrafted products stopped being made by a single craftsman and the production process divided the labor in several workers [2]. This required the ability to design not only of the product itself (shape, color, function) but also the manufacturing process (which should be thoroughly followed by the workers).

It is unreasonable to think that this embryonic concept would still fit contemporary liquid organizations and its processes. Design is wide, polysemic and fluid. A work that, for me, updated the term and got a good grasp of it is from Bruno Latour entitled “A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design” [3]. Though he was a philosopher and not a designer, I find this work a master-piece for breaking with many myths on design, and surely a great way to open new questions.

A cautious look at modern design

First of all, it is impossible to keep putting design as synonym to “construct”. It may have been it in the 1750s, but surely is too narrow for now. Designers design products, but also services, software, processes, businesses, experiences. And not only “build” it, but go beyond to design their groundings, their assumptions, the way you will react when seeing something. Everything in our day-to-day life has been designed, even human interactions. It’s all part of a society, which was designed in a certain way, and present us with silent contours of what we can and can’t do.

Design is sometimes still seen in our organizations as the embellishment area, which cares about the exterior adding beauty. People who think that underestimate greatly the importance of design as a communication platform. A design and its signs reveal much more than beauty and are surely not there to simply aid function. How do you explain the several types of cars we have out there, many with successful sales? Why are there so many e-mail providers if they all accomplish the same function? Of course they provide different values, and they were consciously or unconsciously designed to do so. Design transforms and translates things into signs.

This puts in the hands of a designer a very important role: to design thinking beyond the design itself. It demands a incredible heuristic perception as well as attention to detail. With modern society so connected, a simple bad experience for one customer may put the image of an organization at serious risk. Many modern methodologies like to put everything in fast-forward and say “fail fast to learn faster” or “put your users to test your solution from the beginning”. Nice in theory, but these ways of thinking can be harmful.

A cautious look back with a good deep breath

First, wouldn’t it be better if we got right at the first time? Oh, but it is impossible. Maybe yes, but wouldn’t it be nice to get at least close to it? Does it make sense to spend time and money in blind and random tryouts if we can sit, think and discuss a tittle bit to at least point in the right direction? Second, we live in a very user-centered era, and I think this is fantastic! But users are not guinea pigs and should not be treated like that. Collecting feedback is essential to all developments, but they should be really thought out to not “spend users” and harm our relationship with them [4].

So how can we accomplish this precision without asking our users!? This is outrageous! Luckily we have… history. A great thing humans invented (but sometimes neglect to use) is the retention of historical knowledge, with dos and don’ts and several tips. No design efforts start from scratch, as well as there is no perfectly radical innovation. We a beings of experience, and we draw from it to develop our solutions. Similar designs, past efforts, readings, benchmarking, a damn search on the internet for crying out loud. These references are basic to all successful designs, putting you closer and closer to the right question, and consequently to an adequate answer. What have we done that can contribute to this project? From where can we draw information? What are we trying to improve? Please, DO RESEARCH!

A cautious ending with a last reflection

So design is heuristic, incorporates translation of signs, goes beyond form into conveying meaning, and build itself on redesign. Yes, design means all that… but much more. And I can’t finish this without pointing a last and important part of designing. For a long time designers were tied to the idea of good and bad design. “These designs are good”, “you can’t do that or you will break the good form”, “Good God that is an offensively bad design!”. This simple split between good and bad is, for me, very problematic. Who is it to say what is good and what is bad? For whom is it good or bad? Do you really think that a “good design” for Canada will be a “good design” for Japan? Nothing is universal, and so design should not be restricted to such duality. When designing, we have always in mind our context and which people are we targeting. This makes a “bad design” in one context a “very good design” in other. Again, is all about adaptation.

After reflecting a little on design and what is behind this single term, the best conclusion I can state is that maybe “what is design” is one of the big unanswerable philosophical questions. But to question ourselves about it is a interesting effort to exercise our mind and to design consciously. Designing demands responsibility, because it can impact the lives of several people. It can easily go beyond aesthetics into moral and ethical issues. If we keep designing as we are told to and without thinking about implications, we may as well be doing more harm than good not only for our customers and organization, but to society. Acritical design perpetuates the status-quo, and can contribute to many social problems. So always ask yourself before you design: what’s behind?

A cautious list of references

[1] Theodor W. Adorno & Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. 1947.

[2] Adrian Forty. Objects of Desire. 2005.

[3] Bruno Latour. A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (with Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk). 2008.

[4] Raj Bhatia. Agile is Dead. 2019 (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/agile-dead-raj-bhatia-pmp-pmi-acp/)

I work as an interdisciplinary Service/UX designer & manager specialized in service management for data-driven business and digital transformation.