Definition of Design. Yes, another one.

One of the key challenges of being involved in a humanities & design-oriented perspective of Human-Computer Interaction is defining what design (or Design) is. I think that having an operational definition for Design is healthy. It is not only about divagating, philosophizing, or making the word Design to look more scientific—this is, to convert it into something observable and measurable within a certain space, which has its own axioms and laws. It’s also about understanding what being a designer—in a professional sense—means. What’s an Experience Designer? An Interaction Designer? Is it different from an Information Architect? Isn’t a UI Designer an Experience Designer? Coming up with a single answer it’s not an easy task nonetheless. However, thoughts and words are there to shape and play with reality, and hence to understand our human constructions better. So, below I present a quick definition of what design is.

Design is the conjunction of problem framing, externalization and materialization, and communication. 

Design understood as the conjunction of problem framing, externalization and materialization, and communication.
Design understood as the conjunction of problem framing, externalization and materialization, and communication.

These are my simple approaches to each of these dimensions:

Problem Framing

The designer should decompose the design situation (i.e., analysis) in order to understand it, and make a connection about how the current context, current needs, and current users are related to her past projects and personal experiences (i.e., abduction). Nevertheless, I think that separating problem framing from the other two dimensions during a design process is impossible. If so, we’re not talking about Design. We might be talking about problem solving only.

Externalization and Materialization

A design process cannot escape from representation. The rationale behind the problem framing, and hence the design solution must be externalized, communicated, instantiated. In this regard, the designer should find the means to support her argument. Her understanding of how to synthesize information or how to play with the materials is relevant to make a connection with the client, users, stakeholders, and also with herself.

Communication

The designer creates communication pieces, messages. This is evident in terms of the design outcome and the deliverables by which a designer supports her arguments. These are closely related to the dimension of externalization and materialization. Moreover, every design project entails people interacting. Design projects of any size will imply, at least, a relation between a designer, a client, and user. Part of the design process is to balance this relation. Perspectives, values, interests, and even whims take part in design processes. Therefore, the designer should employ communication skills to play the role of mediator, and understand how she, as a person, in combination with the messages she creates, will achieve that balance.

So far, this operational definition helps me to understand design in a simple way. Furthermore, it also helps me to understand the role of experience designers as rhetoricians; and idea I’m still developing as part of HCI research agenda.

Note: Thanks to Jordan and Marty for the conversations about [design/Design/designing]. I would bet this definition will evolve.

 

 

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  • Erik Stolterman

    Hi Omar, thanks for writing this. I agree with your approach to frame design through different perspectives. This is similar to how Harold Nelson and I did it in our book “The Design Way”. However, when you frame something using this technique, there is always the question if the claim that the perspectives comprehensively capture what design is or if it only gives a partial answer…I have no problem with either of them but they do lead to different evaluations of your proposal. If you argue that the three persepctives constitute a comprehensive framing then everything that are not captured in these persepectives do not influence if any given process is a design process or not. This is a very strong claim, but interesting. If the claim is that these three prespectives is a partial understanding of design, then the claim is less strong and less possible to critique, and also less interesting 🙂