Home > Views > What is design?

What is design?

By Owen Hughes 

Last week Anne-Sophie Chabeau, a design student from ESAL in Belgium, emailed Wolff Olins and asked if we could help her with a project she’s working on by defining design in one sentence. In the spirit of curiosity we opened the question up to the designers here and – despite the fact that we’ve all got more pressing things to do, like designing stuff – it sparked a bit of a debate. So we decided to open it up to Twitter too, with equally varied results.

Most designers have probably thought about this at one time or another. Maybe it’s part of a bigger existential question, or maybe it’s just because your mum’s asked you one too many times what exactly it is that you do. Graphic design grand-daddy Saul Bass said ‘Design is thinking made visual’. I think it’s got to be much bigger than that. Richard van der Laken, director of the What Design Can Do conference says 'Well, everything is design. Except nature of course, although creationists might challenge me on that. Everything that man has touched is, in essence, designed.’

Which is why there isn’t one answer –  because the field is so wide. For me, if design is about anything it’s about trying to make life better – whether that’s designing a wristband that helps you track your physical activity, a way–finding system that makes your journey easier, a film title sequence that makes your heart beat a bit faster or even jewellery that can save your life.

I believe that’s where the heart of it is – design is making things better. Designers make this happen in a myriad of ways, but there are some practices that underpin it all: really understanding who we’re designing for, challenging accepted wisdom, making creative leaps into the dark, making smart use of new materials and technology, reusing old materials and technology in new ways and staying true to a clear guiding thought at the core of it all.

Thank you to everyone who sent their design definitions to us. As few of the responses are below. 

Owen Hughes is a creative director at Wolff Olins London. Follow him at @OwenDHughes