Help! i’m not sure what design means

Every design practitioner seems to have their own idea of how to define the discipline. Nick Sunderland is on a mission to pin it down

At a branding industry forum a couple of years ago, the great and good had assembled in a rather dodgy lecture theatre just off London’s Leicester Square to discuss the finer points of what they do and why they do it. The session kicked off with a simple request from the stage to the audience/ ’define what a brand is’.

The microphone floated back and forth around the auditorium as person after person gave their own definition. They ranged from the Jeff Bezos’ quote, ’your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room’, all the way to ’a brand is a logotype’.

More than 30 different definitions were proposed in just five minutes. I left the session feeling disheartened and thinking that if the process of branding is about being able to define simply what something stands for in the mind of a target audience, we as an industry were failing ourselves. Maybe it’s something to do with chefs not wanting to cook at home, I’m not sure.

Thankfully, I realised it wasn’t just the branding industry that was struggling to define itself. At the beginning of the year I went to a thought-provoking Meeting of Minds event at the British Museum. Sir Christopher Frayling and Jeremy Myerson were discussing all sorts of things to do with the definition and the role of design in society. I’m not suggesting that those two particular speakers wouldn’t be able to define ’design’ if you asked them, but the evening threw up more questions than it answered and it set me thinking.

Would it be possible to define a discipline like design as you would do a brand? Give it a core thought – the single word or phrase we’d want to own in the mind of the audience, like Nike’s ’Victory’ for instance. We all know it’s possible to do it for things like celebrities and countries, so why not design?

I thought the idea was exciting and could help pin down the value and importance of design in the minds of people outside the creative industries, and show it to be so much more than just prettifying objects or a host of other woolly stereotypes that people carry around in their heads. How the discipline spans so many areas of life ranging from the cosmetic to the industrial. How its effects are enjoyed by billions of people every day. And how a healthy design culture is crucial to the development of a healthy and prosperous society.

So where to start? The dictionary suggested eleven separate definitions (see box below). Hmmm. Wikipedia, the source of mob wisdom, began its lengthy article on design with the foreboding ’no generally accepted definition of “design” exists’. Not great either, so I thought I’d go to the Design Council and see what they had to say. In their ’About design’ section on their website they open with ’design can help you improve your sustainability credentials, create products and services that make people happy, and it has positive benefits on a business’s bottom line.’

They then say that ’there are countless definitions of design, as you might expect of a creative endeavour’. It sounded like a bit of a cop-out to me until I discovered an attempt at a definition from their chairman, Sir George Cox. He says, ’Design is what links creativity and innovation. It shapes ideas to become practical and attractive propositions for users or customers. Design may be described as creativity deployed to a specific end.’ It’s no Nike Victory, but it starts to offer a crisper definition. I’ve also been asking lots of well-informed people for their definition of design over the past couple of months and I can hand-on-heart say that no two answers have been the same. The ideas I’ve collected range from the highfalutin (’the application of a visual (or aural) rationale – whether it be guided by a philosophical, a functional or an aesthetic sensibility – to the positioning and ordering of people or things’)to the profound (’design is the problem-solving axis in society’).

One sentiment that did strike a chord with the planner in me was a marriage of two ideas. Namely ’creativity’ and ’inventing something for a specific purpose or function’. Run them together and you get a core thought along the lines of ’creativity with purpose’. I’m not sure it’s quite right, but for me it’s a big thought that’s easy to communicate and not far off the mark. In the meantime, I’ll go on collecting definitions in the hope of striking gold. All ideas gratefully received.

Nick Sunderland is creative strategy director at Heavenly

Latest articles