What Is Design?

You would think a professional brand and graphic designer could effortlessly tell you the definition of design at a moment’s notice, but in writing this, I really had to think about it!

Since design covers a wide range of topics, here’s my own definition for what it is in broad strokes: Design is the thoughtful process of creating a specific outcome with the goal of usability and accessibility.

The official Merriam-Webster definition of design is the following: to plan and make decisions about something that is being built or created : to create the plans, drawings, etc., that show how (something) will be made.

(I mean, that’s basically what I said, right? :P)

On Day 1 of TypeCon 2021, keynote speaker designer Alex Trochut made my jaw drop when he succinctly defined design in this way: “Design is an act of empathy.”

YES. That’s it. That is design as its very essence.

While art is for the expression of self, design is for the function of another.

“Design is an act of empathy.”

designer Alex Trochut

Design is omnipresent.

When achieved at its core, it is something that, more often than not, exists without remark. For example, the walls of a standard cup are angled upwards in profile so that it’s easier to hold. You’re able to discern sriracha from ketchup because of each item’s distinctive bottle shape. Drivers can safely navigate streets because of strategically placed stop signs.

On the other end, when design goes beyond the fulfillment of function and into the fantastic, we can revel in its delights. The art direction of a futuristic sci-fi film can transport an audience into space. The architecture of a museum can inspire awe and serve as a beacon of culture. The illustration of an editorial can incite concern about an underground social ill.

From our environment, communication, transportation, clothing, food, health, self-care, media, and much, much more, design encompasses everything around us, ranging from micro to macro and from the practical to the extraordinary.

Design inspires in perpetuity, across various verticals.

For example, the clean lines on the silhouette of an a-line skirt of a dress can inspire the background pattern on an editorial illustration. Or the intricate slats on a vent grate can inspire an LED light pattern in a light dome. Or a fencing mask and uniform can inspire costume design for a Korean show about deadly children’s games on Netflix. Design is the gift that keeps on giving.

Look around you. Where do you see design at play in your environment? What does design mean to you?

Once you can acknowledge the essence of design and how it works for all of us, we can then start to discern the value of design in our own lives.

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