Defining Design

Flying high
Designing for possibility

What is design? Design lays at the heart of any endeavour to create something with intention. One of the best and most concise definitions comes from Greg Van Alstyne at the Strategic Innovation Lab at OCADU:

“Design is creation for reproduction”


At essence of this definition is the intent to develop a plan — a blueprint perhaps — to create something that can be reproduced. This may not happen, as many architectural delights will attest, but at least there is an ordered sense of planning to how things could be that is proposed in light of systems, craft, available skills and knowledge, need and vision for what could be.

Here are some other ways to think about what design is:

“A designer is an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist” – Buckminster Fuller

“Design is the conscious effort to impose a meaningful order” – Victor Papanek (1985)

“Utility enhanced by significance” – Nigel Cross (2011)

“Design in its simplest form is the activity of creating solutions” – Frank Nuovo (n.d.)

“The application of forethought to action” – Race & Torma (1998)

“Design is what links creativity and innovation. It shapes ideas to become practical and attractive propositions for users or customers. Design may be described as creativity deployed to a specific end” – Sir George Cox

“Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose” – Charles Eames

“Design is to design a design to produce a design” – John Heskett John Heskett (2005), in Design: a very short introduction, Oxford University Press: New York, NY

“Good design is a Renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need and beauty to produce something.” – Paola Antonelli (2001), curator of architecture and design, Museum of Modern Art, New York, in A Conversation About The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

“Design is an expression of the purpose, and it may (if it is good enough) later be judged as art; design depends largely on constraints and it is a method of action (there are always constraints and these usually include ethic)” – Charles Eames

“To design is to communicate clearly by whatever means you can control or master” – Milton Glaser

C”reativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Design is knowing which ones to keep” – Scott Adams

“Design is in everything we make, but it’s also between those things. It’s a mix of craft, science, storytelling, propaganda, and philosophy” – Erik Adegard

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works” – Steve Jobs (2003), as quoted in Rob Walker, “The Guts of a New Machine”, The New York Times Magazine, 30 November 2003

“Good design is also an act of communication between the designer and the user, except that all the communication has to come about by the appearance of the device itself. The device must explain itself” – Donald Norman (2002), The Design of Everyday Things, Introduction to the 2002 Edition

“A designer is an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist” – Buckminster Fuller


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