What is Design?

By “design”, I mean the imposition of will or any other mental process on any object, substrate, structure, or system within the environment, OR the plan for such a translation, transcription, or imposition.  To arrange things in one’s environment according to some need, intention, purpose, or whim constitutes “design.”  Some designs can be practical, while others can be aesthetic expressions that can be an end in and of themselves.

When I call myself a “designer,” I tend to be referring less to the aesthetic and more to the functional qualities of a given system.  Many of my designs are often focused on ergonomic concerns.  For example, what makes one chair more comfortable than another?  What are the architectural advantages of a vertical-walled pyramid as compared to a sloped-wall pyramid?  Etc.  In other instances, my designs are devices that serve as tools that help facilitate certain processes, such as the design for PDA to help one be more productive.

I tend to use the word “art” for those systems in which aesthetics is being more emphasized than functionality.  Thus, for me, “art” and “design” are two dimensions that can vary independently of each other.  Of course, my preference would be to see them both maximized.  And despite my theoretically conceptualizing them as independent dimensions, they interact in the minds of most people.  That is, within the mind of an experiencer, aesthetics and functionality are generally not experienced as mutually exclusive.  A “functional” design can be beautiful to some precisely BECAUSE it IS functional.  To some at the extreme, that which is not functional has no beauty at all.  Conversely, beauty is NOT independent of function.  For example, beauty can cause attraction, which can have the function of biological reproduction.  That is, even though art (or beauty) and design (functionality) CAN vary independently of the other, changes in one will TYPICALLY be correlated with changes in the other.

-- Nonjohn – September 20, 2003

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