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That Tricky Word, “Design”

Appropos of the DUX 2003 conference, I’ve found myself grappling with my relationship to the word “design.” It came to a head on the Tuesday following the conference, when I participated in a panel recapping what had happened. Before it began, I was chatting with co-panelist Hugh Dubberly, and mentioned that in the next iteration of the Adaptive Path website, we will not refer to our work as “user experience design,” and are in fact moving away from the word “design” altogether.

What’s wrong with “design”? Well, there’s nothing wrong with the practice, but plenty wrong with the word’s associations. Right now, particularly in the field of web user experience, the word “design”, without a modifier, means visual design. Adaptive Path doesn’t perform visual design services (though we love partnering with those who do). But, more importantly for us, “design” has been relegated to the world of tactics. “Design” is what happens after the strategy has been settled, the specifications determined, the raison d’etre developed.

This is unfortunate. Design, with a capital D, ought to stretch beyond tactics, and into strategy. Design methods are brilliantly suited to figuring out WHAT to make, not just HOW to make it. I find Herbert Simon’s definition apt: “Everyone designs who devise courses of action
aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state.”

However, I see no need to be a champion for the cause of “design.” When we hired a consultant to help us reposition our marketing, she had two concerns — the phrase “user experience” and the word “design.” The former concerned her because it’s jargon-y, requires definition, and often gets confused with user interface. The latter because she sees the word design in our marketplace being used by firms that don’t do what we do, and that we do what they don’t do. While we’re willing to fight the “user experience” fight, because we feel we can help define it, fighting the “design” fight simply doesn’t interest us.

Again, not that we don’t do design. Information architecture and interaction design are valuable kinds of design. Even the strategies we craft could be considered ‘design’. But, I don’t think we’re wedded to the term ‘design.’ None of us went to design school. We don’t feel the need to be associated with the word. In fact, we find that potential clients see “design” as a commodity, somewhat interchangeable, and not understanding its true value, often go with the less expensive option.

(For what it’s worth, I think pretty much the exact same thing about “usability” as I do “design” — it’s tactical, and quite possibly, even *more* of a commodity. But writing about the term ‘usability’ would have to be the subject of a whole other post.)


  1. That’s the unfortunate thing about words: they’re much more fluid in terms of meaning than we ever expect them to be. I’ve been pondering this (as from the looks of things, a bunch of other people have too) difficulty in naming things recently with particular regard to user experience design, information architecture, information design etc., and come up with the conclusion that it all boils down to “making stuff useful”. Vague, I know, but IAs and IDs make information useful to an audience, designers do too, but from an aesthetic approach. I suppose the problem with this tag is that it’s a bit too all-encompassing, but it does get rid of some of the “defining the damn thing” annoyances. Best of luck with the re-branding/re-positioning/re-design: whatever you want to call it!

  2. I think it’s a good idea. It’s unfortunate but makes sense. I guess it’s similar to one reason why Cooper dropped Design from their name(more strategic and business oriented). But something I’ve learned from the electrical engineering world…they use “Design” as part of their process as well. There are engineers who Design the next generation of semi-conductors and their are engineers who manufacture them.

  3. Design has been relegated to tactics, and it has indeed become commodified; there are more visual designers than ever who can produce good-looking stuff.

    The hard thing isn’t so much to define the word for yourself, or for your company, but to define yourself for your clients. Pretty much everyone I know with money to give me thinks “design” means “making things look cool and pretty.” For some, “design” carries the kind of connotations that “new business model” carries: some kind of snake-oil mumbo jumbo intended to take my money and confuse me.

    It’s impossible to educate them about the difference between what I do and “pretty-making.” REally, the difference is quite subtle; why should a client learn about my snooty-pants academic distinction anyway? Do you want to explain to a client how their programmers are really “designers” too, since they’re making structural decisions and seeking elegant solutions to problems?

    Peter: tell us what your marketing consultant comes up with!

  4. Many years ago, in a U.S. Air Force Reserve training class, the teaching sergeant was taken a bit aback by a question from one of the weekend reservists.

    “What,” the reservist asked innocently, is the difference between “Tactics” and “Strategy?”

    The sergeant glowered at the young recruit, then turned to the blackboard and with his chalk, pressed a thick, white mark on the board.

    “That,” he exclaimed to the class, “is tactics.” Putting down the chalk he added, “Strategy is something else again! Class dismissed.”

    The sergeant’s abrupt summation notwithstanding, it is pretty clear that if you intend to exercise any clarity in thought and action, you cannot reasonably stretch a descriptive word to bridge both tactics and strategy.

    Hands and feet have certain key features in common. As do leather gloves and shoes. To avoid embarrassment we need specific terminology if we are to appropriately “design” and comfortably wear our wardrobe .

  5. I could not agree more with the stand-alone term design. Using the design term with clients leads to talking about colors and what is cool. I have been using discovery, structure, visual presentation, etc. where I had been using design in the past. Design is right up there with navigation as mis-understood terms. Navigation was easier to remove from my vocabulary than design has been. Not using either term has help keep communications clear as well as analyst/developer and the client on the same page.

    Peter, what will AP be calling what they do? User Centered Stuff/Strato-structuring/Develosign?

  6. Peter, what are these “design methods” of which you speak? You mean looking at a situation and figuring out how to make it better?

    Designers are the only people I’ve ever encountered prone to such delusions of grandeur as to proclaim that their own discipline should subsume all human activity.

    The term for “[devising] courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” is not design. It is problem solving.

    Everybody solves problems — it’s a basic human capacity. The tendency of designers to presume that it is their unique province is just (further) evidence of how disconnected the culture of Design is from reality.

    Thomas, what are you calling “navigation” these days?

  7. Ditto Jesse’s (jjg) comments. (Nice, Jesse!)

    The problem is that design (and many of the other words and phrases) is used as a granfalloon, a a proud and meaningless association of human beings ( It’s not that one word or phrase is better or worse than another, but that they are being used to influence people while at the same time avoiding meaningful definitions.

    So, Peter (and Adaptive Path) are putting a new spin on their marketing. I only wish it was something more than just spin.

  8. I wouldn’t characterize it as “just spin”. We’ve got people asking us for services we don’t provide. That indicates to me that our communications are insufficiently user-centered. So we’re taking steps to correct that.

  9. Jesse, I have replaced navigation with browsing structure (local and global site for what has normally been called navigation bars/modules) and inline/in content (hyper)links. I there has been much confusion with the navigation term with clients, some develpers and designers. The navigation term is not always clear and the metaphor does not describe the interaction acturately (it is also a limiting term for other possibilities).

    Web developers that have been in the industry for more than three or so years have run into similar problems with the navigation term. There were many at the 2003 IA Summit that discussed the problems with the navigation term and metaphor (I taking some blame on this front too). The difficult problem for myself was what to call that which was navigation and browsing structure seems to be very well understood with fellow developers, IAs, experienced clients, and newbie clients.

  10. “navigation” vs. “browsing structure.” Hmm, I’ll have to try that one out. “Navigation” of course isn’t really used as a concrete noun by anyone except IAs, which means it’s one more jargon term. “Browsing structure” doesn’t really nail it for me, still too vague since I have a hard time getting clients to see this stuff as “structure” as well.

    One horrible term that many people seem to have latched onto is “buckets.” Content goes in “buckets”, sections of the site are “buckets”, global tabs lead to “buckets”. I shudder to use it, but I’ve even found myself writing it in documents if that’s what the client uses.

    Since getting out of academia for design, I’ve often thought that many desigers secretly want to be Deep Thinker Academics, but without all the bother of real academic rigor. Certainly academia spins its wheels endlessly defining terms, too, but that’s kind of the whole point of academia. Design, as JJG says is ostensibly about solving problems.

    Re the “tactics” vs. “stragegy” thing: strategy is easy, since strategists are rarely accountable to anyone. Tactics is the part where everyone looks around at each other and says “how the hell are we going to get this project done?”

  11. The inputs we need as information architects are the same inputs needed to create a more complete picture of the business problem, a more focused approach to resolving it, and thus better requirements. Thus, the IA may deliver an output, the structure of the solution, but the user research/task analysis stuff we do as part of our “design” activities is really more broadly useful than design or IA. In those activities we are really more facilitators to increasing business understanding of how to get to a solid and long-lasting solution. The effort is mostly wasted if just used for “design.”

  12. “Thus, the IA … is really more broadly useful than design or IA. In those activities we are really more facilitators to increasing business understanding of how to get to a solid and long-lasting solution.”

    Business “faciliators” don’t sound like people who have any real power to affect change where it’s needed. I’m becoming more and more dubious of the large-scale claims that IA and design in general make on solid and long-lasting solutions. That’s mostly because I don’t see anyone designing solid and long-lasting solutions. “Strategy” is largely an attempt to postpone making the hardest decisions in favor of making a series of easier ones, even if some wrong-turns and backtracking happens.

  13. Well since I work on a large financial company’s websites I have to eat what I cook and our users let us know when we’re not being strategic. That goes for all business and IT folks involved in communicating with/servicing our users through the web. There is a tendency for middle management to act tactically because catering to the internal business client’s desires is the traditional way of doing things, but the leadership strongly advocate for the user. Also, the tools we use as IAs are becoming more widely understood in the company to be useful and demand for what we do is growing. Hopefully someday in the future IAs won’t be the ones doing the research and task analysis – the business will.

  14. At the risk of jumping into a hornet’s nest, I’ve been thinking and writing on some of these topics recently and want to stick up for Design a bit here. In fact, Peter’s initial post is a fair recognition of the (important) domain of Design while acknowledging that the word is mired in brand neverland.

    Going back to Jesse’s comments, which elicited a strong second from Ron,

    “Designers are the only people I’ve ever encountered prone to such delusions of grandeur as to proclaim that their own discipline should subsume all human activity.

    The term for ‘[devising] courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones’ is not design. It is problem solving.

    Everybody solves problems — it’s a basic human capacity. The tendency of designers to presume that it is their unique province is just (further) evidence of how disconnected the culture of Design is from reality.”

    This response is a bit narrow and mean-spirited, at least to this designer who is (I think, depending on how you define it) part of the culture of Design.

    In the domains that we (presumably all of us participating in this thread) work – lets call them information solutions disciplines – we’ve been conditioned to think of “Design” as layout or “Design” as graphic design. In fact, Design is a word that, for many years and pre-dating our birth, was acknolwedged as (my definition but consistent with the standard): “creation in or alteration of the world to meet the needs and desires of people.”

    While graphic design *is* a design discipline it *is not* Design. Design is a word that identifies the overall domain where people solve problems that result in the physical world being changed in response to human needs and desires. There are many disciplines of design, covering everything from products to organizations to buildings. The creation or alteration of those things all fall under Design. It is just a category, not anyone trying to “subsume all human activity.”

    All Design is problem solving, but not all problem solving is Design. Doing a math problem in my head is problem solving but not (in and of itself) Design; creating something in the world to respond to human needs is Design as well as problem solving.

    The beauty of Design? By its very essence, by definition, it *is* the user experience domain. When acting to improve user experience we are, ostensibly, designing.

    There are people mis-using the word “Design,” or calling themselves designers and acting very self-important for it – just as there are people who do not understand and display buffoonery in every community. But it is always a mistake to generalize and stereotype an entire culture of professionals, particularly when your analysis (forwarding that Design is problem solving pretending to be something more) is not quite accurate.

    You are a designer, Jesse, even if you don’t choose to call yourself one. All of the people responding to this thread likely are designers. In different ways, in different media, at different points, we Design.

    I’m open to analysis that the word Design in any tactical sense has little value because of its breadth and the degree to which people do not understand the word (treating it as synonymous with graphic design). But to extrapolate some of your other conclusions and lay that blanket over our entire community is not good form.

  15. there is an interesting book (rather of philosophical nature) about “design”. it is a book of vilem flusser “vom stand der dinge. eine kleine philosophie des design”.

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