What is “Design”?

Design is a process especially suited to divergent thinking—the exploration of new choices and alternative solutions.  – Tim Brown, IDEO

Most basically put, “design” = creative problem-solving.  And it can be applied to any challenge to come up with a solution.  Good design creates appropriate, sustainable and effective solutions.  Good design applied to meaningful problems—like those facing people and issues in serious need—creates meaningful solutions.

Design ≠ just “graphic design”, or “fashion design”.  Although those are two disciplines and many people think of them first when they hear the word “design”.  Graphic design—using color, text and images—is a very useful tool in communicating and creating meaningful design solutions, and is often a part of a design strategy.  But other useful tools include product or industrial design, engineering, service design and user experience design.

Anyone can be a designer.  In fact, most people design stuff all the time.  Some people get formal training and learn much more about the ins and outs, tips and tricks of the trade.  And designers’ advanced skills and talents can be very useful in a variety of applications.

At its core, “designing” something involves analyzing a problem, identifying the root cause and contributing factors, coming up with an idea to solve it, and executing that idea.  The idea doesn’t necessarily have to be complicated, but the more contributing factors and parties affected by the problem and the potential solution, the more moving pieces a person has to juggle and account for.  And then, designing solutions requires thinking in systems.

An appropriate solution comes from true understanding of the problem and its conditions.  The form it should take—be it product, service or system—then becomes clear.  The best designers start with the problem first, and let it take shape, rather than letting their own goals or expertise unfairly bias what formats they’ll use.

Design relies on prototyping to bring rough ideas to life, testing and iteration to adjust and refine solutions until they’re an exact fit to solve the problem at hand.

“Design” in the context of this blog will focus on issues like poverty, income generation, food and agriculture, water and sanitation, health and medical care, shelter and security, disaster relief, energy, education, community and societal issues.  The mission is to chronicle, discuss and encourage boundary-pushing innovation and the process of figuring out how to make conditions better for people living in developing and underserved communities around the world.

What does “design” mean to you?  Leave a comment below.


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