What is Design?

I see many discussions get heated or go in circles when the topic is “design.” In the field of software development, what is design?

There are those looking at it from the point of view of usability and fitness for use. Some, often closely aligned with these, use the word “design” to talk about the visual aspects. Others, the user experience.

Others look at the manner in which the software is constructed. Those who use the title of “Software Architect” often look at the big picture aspects–what frameworks will be used and how the system will be distributed. DBAs look at the schema of the persisted data as design. Those who write the code see design in the modules, classes, methods and functions–and how they interact.

Some people think that design is something you do before building the system, often drawing diagrams to illustrate their ideas. Some go so far as to assert that if this is not done prior, the system is not designed at all. Others maintain they can do just as well designing on the fly, mostly capturing the design directly in the code, but also describing it in conversation and sketches. Still others say the real design is “as built,” and the original intent is not so important.

People use “design” to refer to all sorts of small tidbits in the development process. They abstract some of these and call them “design patterns.”

Sometimes people use the word “design” to mean “the important stuff I do while I leave the mere implementation to others.”

All this is just about software, and is surely not exhaustive. When you add physical products to the mix, the definitions multiply. Any discussion about design that doesn’t develop a shared understanding of what is meant by “design” is sure to cause difficulties. And public utterances about design will always be interpreted differently by some people.

8 Replies to “What is Design?”

  1. Great question. I try not to use design without some sort of qualifier – information design, visual design, interaction design, application design, database design, etc.

    Did some digging around and came across http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/about-design/What-design-is-and-why-it-matters/. Some of this feels a bit fuzzy, but I really like the idea that design is a linking activity — linking our understanding of a problem to our thoughts about a potential solution; linking an idea to something tangible that realises that idea; …


  2. Thanks, Graham.

    Nice link! Mat Hunter makes some statements that are about his ideal of design, rather than about design itself. But I really like the concept that design “makes ideas tangible, it takes abstract thoughts and inspirations and makes something concrete.” I find this more satisfying than assertions that designs only live in the head, and everything tangible is just an expression of that design.

  3. This post was absolutely necessary! Tell me what “design” means to you and I’ll know who you are.

    To me design is “as built,” yet the original intent IS important and I like to keep track of it.

    I have several friends that are industrial designers and they have a similar problem in that “design” is understood as “graphic design” by many (especially for people familiar with american culture), and as “industrial design” by other (typically in France or Italy). On the other hand, for the average consumer “design” is more like a fashion style for furniture.

  4. Ditto on George’s commentary about the Mat Hunter link.

    In particular, I like Hunter’s assertion:
    “This pragmatic process of making ideas tangible and then trying them out with users means that design has a particular ability to make things simple.”
    because I think it applies to anything from making icons in Photoshop, to the UX, and to the architecture of the code.

  5. I tend to agree with Graham. Design covers all aspects, hopefully prior to development. I would tend to place it at the same level as architecture, and similarly they can exist at higher and lower levels. If I were to talk about “Software design” the conversation would rapidly descend into greater detail.

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