It's Design all the way down | September 14, 2012

A lot of the discussions I have about our profession end with somebody saying “Well it’s all just design really”, or “it’s just good design and bad design”. This is a great way of ending a conversation when you’re bored and have a bus to catch. It’s the designers equivalent of Godwins law.
In the most part I agreed that user-centered design and task-centred design are really just Design. Graphic design, product design and architectural design are also Design. You could even argue that engineering and programming are forms of Design, if you believe that Design is ultimately about making decisions which affect the final manifestation of a thing.

However it’s not an especially helpful statement.

Fashion design, jewellery design and architectural design differ because of the medium and the way that medium is enjoyed. The differences in medium, combine with history to produce vastly differing approaches, and its these differing approaches that I find interesting.

Within digital design, there are varying approaches (or schools) including user-centered design, task-centred design and genius design. All of these approaches have evolved to address different needs, and in turn produce slightly different outcomes. None of these approaches are an island and good designers will often mix and match techniques. However every designer uses a slightly different mixture and comes up with a vast array of results. Some with more success than others.

Defining good and bad design is even harder. Is good design just a matter of aesthetics and personal taste, or can something be described as “good design” if it’s highly functional and fit for purpose, but looks likes crap (I’m thinking of eBay, Amazon and a host of other websites here).

Interesting it’s mostly senior people that use the “It’s just design” argument, and I think there is good reason for this. Like Buddha reaching enlightenment and realising that we’re all basically interconnected, designers at the peak of their carers start looking across disciplines and noticing the similarities. We are all part of this big interconnected thing called Design.

Congratulations. You’ve reached design Nirvana. Let’s all hold hands and pat each other on the back (not at the same time, obviously).

At this point many designers ascend to design heaven (or up their own arses) and detach themselves from the suffering of man. However just like Buddha, I think a few of these design gods would benefit from coming back down to earth and helping their fellow designers reach a similar state of mind.

Once you’ve reached enlightenment, you can’t go around telling people how obvious and interconnected everything is or you’ll start sounding like David Ike (the lizards are responsible for everything, honest). Instead, the way to lead people to that understanding is to provide them with models of the world that expand their understanding and lead them to their own lightbulb moment. Much in the same way that Physics teachers will explain Newtonian mechanics before moving on to Quantum String Theory.

This is why I find conversations about the nature of design useful. It allows designers to expand their horizons in different directions until their models start to overlap. To apply different lenses to their practice in order to understand how the various moving parts work, and where they fit in.

Sure, it’s all just Design in the end, but that doesn’t make user-centered design, task centered-design or any other schools of design any less useful or relevant.

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