What is Design? (Yep, all 10 definitions!)

Summary: What is Design? (Yep, all 10 definitions!). The term design can mean many things, depending on who you are. Rarely do people stop to compare ‘mental maps’ and clarify what design means to them. This affects UX Design. Clarify your design type and shape expectations appropriately with your stakeholders.

What type of Design are we talking about?

As you know, there are many types of design. But people rarely stop to compare “mental maps” or clarify which type of design they are talking about. Subsequently, the impact of the confusion can be annoying at a minimum, and catastrophic at a maximum.

Here are some examples of conversations I hear frequently that cause me to stop and ask, “What type of design are we talking here?”:

  • “We’ll take care of that when we get to design”
  • “That’s something the designer will have to figure out…”
  • “We’re starting design now…”
  • “We’re bringing in a designer…”
  • “Here are some early design concepts…”
  • “This will be decided by the designer”
  • “Have you started design yet?”
  • “Why are these designs in Latin?”
  • “The design looks great!”
  • “This isn’t the final design, we’ll get to that later…”

Since design means many things to many people, let’s explore some definitions of design from a UX consultant’s perspective.

Design for the Mind

The first set of design impacts cognitive processes (fit to the mind), including interpreting and understanding the experience is impacted by this design.

#1 User Interface Design: Screen layout and design that focuses on user interactions and screen behaviors. User Interface (UI) design is an important component of user-centered and task-oriented design. The focus of UI Design is to improve the “user experience” or usability of the design. Since the mid 1980’s, UI design has refined an understanding of human behavior and screen design. Also called “GUI” design, often confused for combined design and programming (see this post). UI Design is often seen as symbolic of green-screen era interfaces or coding, since developers used to be UI Designers before it was recognized that this was a special skill set…

#2 Information Architecture: Skeleton mock-ups or “wireframes” of screen interactions, layout, navigation and features. Used to review, concept and test initial functionality.  Information Architecture (IA) is officially unrecognized by academic institutions, because it overlaps too closely with the already existing field of UI Design above. Few realize that IA was invented for commercial purposes originally by Argus Associates in the late 90’s, (Rosenfeld & Morville, yes, the polar bear book guys) to promote consulting and book sales, as revealed by former employee Keith Instone at his ‘alphabet soup’ talk a few years ago in Portland, Oregon.

#3 Interaction Design: Focuses on how the user interacts with a page, application or product. Interaction design follows a task centered design approach ensuring the flow of the interaction as the central goal. Interaction design predates the Web world, and finds its roots in the wider field of Human Computer Interaction. Interaction design is a more general umbrella that many working on Web 2.0 interfaces and web applications prefer, since IA appears stuck in web-page centric paradigms.

Sanity check: Are the three design disciplines above different? Not really, their goals are all the same.

Design for the Heart

The next set of design impacts sensory processes (fit to the emotions), including the feelings and emotional or affective qualities of the experience.

#4 Graphic Design: The “eye-candy or look and feel”. Graphic design is widely known and it’s similarity to UI Design in what is often called “visual design” by people like Luke W at Yahoo! (Luke is a graphic design by background but does great UI design and visual design today).

In a usability process, once wire-frames are finalized, they are graphically treated to enhance the interaction design with aesthetic flavor. Graphic design focuses on enhancing layout, buttons, colors, icons and branding elements. The focus of graphic design is to improve the “look and feel” or stylistic aspects of the design. Because graphic designers operate from the heart, they are often accused of producing “fluff”. If you give a graphic designer user interface specifications, however, their results can be outstanding. I see it every day at Experience Dynamics.

#5 Interactive Design: This Art college degree type is largely a hybrid discipline that captures a little of everything. An Interactive Designer produces good Flash pieces, animation, graphic design and some database programming or HTML. At the heart an Interactive Designer is great at graphic design and has a sensitivity and sensibility for usability. I taught Interactive Designers at the Art Institute of Portland (Oregon USA) and I kept telling the school the course should be called “Interaction Design” not “Interactive Design” but they wouldn’t listen! My mistake.

#6 Emotion Design: Emotion design comes from the field of usability and product design. Emotion design is concerned with the specific social, environmental, personal and intimate qualities of user experience. Emotion design is a fringe discipline within the usability and user research communities that is gaining an “I told you so” voice with products like Apple’s iPhone creating so many “ooooh, ahhhhs” from customers. Emotion design is an approach that can inform the outcome of any of the design types. e.g. “This user is influenced by this perception, expectation, color, shape, feeling…”

Design for the Body

Next is design that impacts Anthropomorphic processes (fit to the human body), including the social and physical contexts of the experience.

#7 Industrial Design: Physical products that we can all relate to…the most obvious– a mobile device. Like graphic design, industrial design is easy to spot in everyday experience. Physical product design has origins that can be found at any local history museum. Since the dawn of time, human civilization’s has been defined by its tool or artifact creation abilities. Physical products with “good design” are intuitive: they feel, sound, look and work elegantly. Good industrial designers have, for much of the 20th century, mastered physically many of the design types described above, creating an impressive history of design for the human body, senses, environment and mind in a way that transcends, evokes and transforms experiences the user performs with the product.

The final group below are methodologies and approaches encompassing the design techniques above. Let’s take a quick look at some of these approaches or methodologies that cross into the blurry line of “design”.

Holistic approaches/ methodologies

#8 Human Centered Design: The overall industry and ISO standard methodology and set of techniques that places the user at the center of the design. Human or user-centered design (UCD) involves three key activities: User research; UI prototyping and Usability Testing. UCD is iterative by nature and has the most impact if conducted early on in a software, product or web development process. Its methods and techniques and general approach to design are proven from an ROI perspective and are widely accepted in industry, academia and in government sectors.

#9 User Experience Design: A relatively new term that updates the term and discipline of UCD or “usability engineering”. User experience adding a more holistic element to the technique of designing the user experience (on web sites or web applications). User Experience or UX design I consider more an approach or umbrella of techniques or a general approach. It is not a type of design per say, as its practitioners will inevitably conduct UI design, IA or interaction design as the deliverable of the UX design approach.

#10 Experience Design: Experience design is often used as a short hand for User Experience Design, but is largely considered with what I call Environmental Design, or the design of the experience in retail or open space environments. Again, Experience Design is a general umbrella approach or methodology that penetrates all design decisions but with an experiential agenda.

“What will the customer experience as the do X?”, must have been what the Starbucks experience designers were thinking…

Retail and public spaces can greatly benefit from improved loyalty (attachment feelings, comfort and personalization) and productivity (learning, exploring, browsing) studies have found. Experience Design makes use of the context, social and environmental phenomenon as well as the feelings, perceptions and intuitions of the user in that context.

Using the definitions of design for clarity

Perhaps now you comprehend why “design” carries such ambiguity. When you encounter the term “design,” get clarity about which type of design; the few minutes you spend aligning your understanding can save you much confusion and time later.

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