Design: Unknown and Misunderstood?


Hugh – frogmuseum2

This post has been in various stages of progress for the last few weeks: the longest I have ever spent writing a post. This is because the subject is very important to me, probably the most pressing issue currently on my mind. It began as a simple anecdote that quickly transformed after I read two related blog posts tonight.

The two articles I refer to are by Leland Maschmeyer and James McNab. Each describes how to answer the perennial question that perplexes so many designers and creative types: “So, what do you do?”. Despite their different perspectives they both arrive at the same conclusion. The difficulty in answering the question comes from trying to describe, and therefore define, the act of design. As a fellow designer, I have been plagued by this same question.

However, the genesis of this post came from a different struggle. This struggle was brought on not by a lack of design knowledge but instead by a misunderstanding of design and its value. Let me explain.

I recently met with a new client to discuss my involvement in their design project. This client happens to be an entrepreneur with no prior experience working with designers. Prior to this meeting I had prepared a project proposal based on our original meeting. In this proposal I outlined my design process and capabilities. I was trying to emphasis and explain how the design process could make their idea real and even more important: valuable.

However, during the course of the meeting it was brought to my attention that the client and their team felt that most of my process could be easily done on their own. I was quite shocked by this, but upon later thought I realized that I shouldn’t expect design to be understood by everyone.

This client was under the assumption that design was the process of turning their abstract idea into a tangible form. Now while this holds some truth, it really only covers a small fragment of what designers do. The other parts (the more hidden and internalized ones) are far more important and valuable. Although I demonstrated the benefits of doing research and obtaining user insights, the client failed to grasp why my entire design process would be valuable to them. Their pre-existing understanding of design stood in my way; to them design is the sexy final product.

It frustrated me that my problem wasn’t defining design but trying to overcome pre-existing assumptions on design. So while I empathize with Leland and James, I am discouraged by a new problem: how do you not only communicate what you do, but also why it’s important?


When I searched Flickr for this post’s photo, I found something that stood out. The photo above made me realize that people fully understand the value of design (the product), but fail to grasp the value of design (the process). The Teddy Bear is an undoubtedly rich and complex design that has meaning and value to almost everyone, and people get this. However they fail to grasp the thought and process involved in creating this meaning. Behind every great product, service and idea is thought and consideration (design). The end result is a materialized form of the process. Without the process there is no result.

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