What is it that makes somebody a designer?

Last week, we looked at Fraser Muggeridge’s exhibition showcasing magazines created by non-professional designers, which blurs the lines between amateur and professional design. Now, we’ve asked an existential question – what exactly is it that makes a designer a designer?

Sebastian Conran
Sebastian Conran, director, Sebastian Conran Associates. © Richard Seymour

“Design is the legacy of thought; if when I see or use something I think ‘I wish I had thought of that’ then I will respect the person who has designed it, whether they are a design professional or not. There are some designers – notably Dieter Rams who works for Braun – who apply an almost formulaic visual signature to their work, while always seeming fresh. There are others – such as Achille Castiglioni or Charles Eames – whose work is recognisable more through its mindset than appearance. To my thinking, both approaches are valid, so long as they are satisfying to use and put ‘a smile in the mind’.”

John Mathers, CEO, Design Council
John Mathers, chief executive, Design Council

“Well, while at its very heart I believe that wanting to make a difference to people’s lives through design is paramount, I’m also seeing a huge change in the skills that designers will need to embrace. I’m writing this from Cornwall where, yesterday, I visited Falmouth University and met their Launchpad team. Launchpad is a graduate entrepreneurship programme to incubate new market-led high growth businesses in key sectors. There are hugely exciting ideas being developed through a combination of design, digital/technology and business skills – and it’s that combination of skills that we need to be fostering in all of our designers of the future.”

Michael Place, founder, Build
Michael Place, co-founder, Build

“Today’s designers tend to have obsessions with cycling, collecting obscure magazines about cycling and sharing Strava cycling GPS tracker data over a flat white, of course. Sweeping generalisations aside, a designer is someone who looks at the world in a different way to most other people. It’s inherent in the fibre, the DNA perfectly aligned at birth – as problem-solvers, we travel on the bus or Tube and wince at kerning on posters, we bitch about the latest rebrand (secretly wishing we had done it), we critique everything. When a ‘normal’ person is watching the TV horrified at a news story, we are horrified by the logo on the van in the background. Being a designer sometimes feels like a curse, a bit like Michael J Fox’s character in the 1985 film Teen Wolf – but it does have its plus sides too… honest!”


Joel Bailey, service designer and founder, Strategic Design Resourcing
Joel Bailey, service designer and founder, Strategic Design Resourcing

“The field of service design is understood to be very new – but really that’s an arrogance. Non-designers have been ‘designing’ services for years, making astute observations about human behaviour and adapting or innovating a system to best respond. And because services are complex, where the raw material is usually people (and their technology), the best form of design is the collective, renaissance sort: utilising people from diverse backgrounds, and with different skills, who will apply design to achieve a better outcome. The skill is steering a coherent and innovative vision through collaborative group facilitation.”


Naomi Turner, head of group, Manufacturing, Design and Innovation
Naomi Turner, head of group, Manufacturing, Design and Innovation

“This is a tricky question, and not without its political import. Government has long failed to recognise the value of design and indeed its practitioners, because of their very ability to be so responsive to different needs, and in different environments. However, it is worth considering that the methods of measuring design practice itself can be improved, rather than encouraging more existential anguish over what a designer is or isn’t (although the latter point is inextricably tied up with the fragile future of design education).

As we move away from the era of the ‘star’ designer, I welcome the renewed interest in seemingly mundane histories of design – this detailed history of coffee cup lids being just one example – as a step towards realising the importance of designers to almost every single interaction in our day-to-day lives.”

What do you think defines a designer? Let us know in the comments section below. 

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  • Howard Stein August 13, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    In New York, if one looks at job postings, an incredible, and incredulous, array of experience and skills are demanded
    . Aside from some years in the business web skill is almost always required in addition to the Bachelor’s degree, leading to the conclusion that design training is a must. However
    I find it a stretch that a 24 year old is capable of effective user experience design. A designer needs skill in life and craft and the curiosity to spot and solve problems, with a beautiful result.

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