The Length, Breadth and Depth of Design

Whenever someone asks me a question – What is design? I find myself giving either clichéd answers or fumbling to stitch together inadequate sentences to describe the vocation I love. The meaning of design is definitely very hard to pin down. But with this article, I’d like to take a jab at it.
Design is both a noun and a verb. It is a designer’s passion, a business activity, a thought process and a way of life. Design is not mutually exclusive of other creative disciplines be it fine art, architecture and performing arts. And can very well include traditionally non-creative disciplines like engineering, sociology and scientific research. But for the sake of having an organising principle let me start by taking an academic approach to identifying types of design. Design which is taught in d-schools world over is usually categorised as follows: Industrial design (often includes Product design, Car design, Furniture design, Ceramic and Glass design), Space design (Interior design & Exhibition design), Graphic design (may include UI design) and Fashion design (Apparel design, Knitwear design, Textile design, and Accessories design). Design students are taught to optimally use design elements such as form, shape, colour, and texture to come up with aesthetically appealing and functional end products. These principles of design are fundamental to and applicable for all disciplines of design. So, to put it in a big nutshell – the way a mobile phone, television set, house, office, car or garment looks and functions is all design. The many design types mentioned above or the ‘design departments’ as we call them, form the length of design.
Despite having a governing set of principles and laws postulated by pioneering design practitioners and design schools, design is definitely not an exact science. Design, like art has an emotional aspect. A product may be deemed likeable or dislikeable simply on basis of the emotional appeal it exerts on a given individual. Design is also ever evolving. A solution which may seem perfect now may become dated or obsolete by the end of the year. Design can easily be compared to an organically growing entity which absorbs new information, mutates and grows. But design is not always about ‘What’s new?’ Design also involves breathing new life into the old, re-inventing our heritage to retain its relevance to the current times. And yet ensuring the identity of our culture is not lost in the process. The degree of innovation could be the breadth of design where innovation strictly means creating something new. A design may be creative or interesting, but yet not innovative. This in no ways means that less innovative design is not as good as more innovative design. I use it simply as a parameter to categorise different designs. The latest digital tablet in the market is as good a design product, as your grandma’s finely woven Pashmina.
Finally we come to the depth of design. This aspect of design is probably the hardest to define. It explains the extent of influence of design as a way of thinking. When we talk about the depth of design, I’d like the reader to imagine taking a deep dive into a bottomless ocean. The depth, to which your imagination can take you, is the depth of design. Design is not always tangible. A lot of design is an intangible thought process. Design is not just the form of your smartphone, it is also the creative marketing techniques which are involved in selling it. A lot of design is done by non-designers. It is part of the inherent inventive nature of human beings. Sometimes this realm of design is called ‘design thinking’. In a design school it may be taught as part of a ‘Service design’ course wherein not only is the product designed by a designer. But the whole experience around the product is also consciously designed. The design of a mobile app which facilitates car pooling in crowded cities cannot be merely contained within the discipline of UI design. The idea also counts. It is the simple result of a complicated thought process; it is the result of ‘thinking like a designer’. The depth of design is easily the most powerful and influential aspect of design. It tackles issues and problems which are often not associated with a designer. In fact, in some ways it demands the intervention of a designer in areas which require a design thinker’s attention the most. Design is all about thinking laterally – considering alternatives, questioning dogma and exploring what’s new while taking advantage of what already exists. While strictly speaking design disciplines tackle the design of a single entity, design thinking considers the whole eco-system of design. When BMW proved through its Fun Theory program, that it could get more people to take the stairs by simply making it fun to do – they did not invent a whole new gadget. They simply used oversized piano keys on top of stairs– definitely not an innovative product, but the context in which it was placed made it astoundingly brilliant idea. Who’d have thought that designers could help reduce obesity without making gym equipment?
Although I did start out attempting to define design, I now feel that design cannot be defined. It is a dynamic, ever-changing, ever-growing field. And ironically, the non-designer is more important in the evolution of design than the design professional. Design is like a tool – a resource which free for all to use. It is adaptable and meaningful to different situations. It does not come with an instructions manual and that is the beauty of it. It works for you in the way you want it to work; it contributes to the extent you want it to contribute. It is a magic wand and you invent your own spells- it simply harnesses the inventiveness, intelligence and creativity which already resides in you.