Design is a four-letter word

Inspired by a recent question posed by Jon Hicks, I felt the need to expand on a couple of the points brought up in the ensuing discussion.

It would be very easy to get into a very deep philosophical discussion on etymology and the origin of words, but we’ll save that for another day (or never). In this case, the word “design” is up for debate. What does it mean? How does it relate to the web?

Jon Hicks asks the following question via this post:

Friday Question: Can you get Great Design on a budget?

Simple question, right? Not really. Design is a four-letter word for me. It is used in such a variety of ways, it makes it very hard to discuss without a clear definition or context. To start, here’s what Mirriam-Webster has to say:

Function: noun

  1. a: particular purpose held in view by an individual or group b: deliberate purposive planning
  2. a mental project or scheme in which means to an end are laid down
  3. a: a deliberate undercover project or scheme : PLOT b plural : aggressive or evil intent — used with on or against
  4. a preliminary sketch or outline showing the main features of something to be executed : DELINEATION
  5. a: an underlying scheme that governs functioning, developing, or unfolding : PATTERN, MOTIF b: a plan or protocol for carrying out or accomplishing something (as a scientific experiment); also : the process of preparing this
  6. the arrangement of elements or details in a product or work of art
  7. a decorative pattern
  8. the creative art of executing aesthetic or functional designs

Now, throw in a dash of context – The Web – and we’re ready to go.

Most people, when asked, will probably relate design to the style or aesthetic of a website. However, design goes much deeper than style. Even in traditional art, design goes much deeper than the aesthetic. There is an intended purpose in the work – a function or message that the artist hopes to convey to the viewer.

Andy Rutledge does a tremendous job of summing up the process of design by breaking it into layers via his emphasis on the style layer. My favorite quote from this article is this

Each layer is important and, done well, contributes to the wholeness of the design. Leave out one layer and the design will fail to reach its potential.

Especially in regards to that last point, there are a few classic examples used when rebutting the necessity of style in web design. One could even argue fairly strongly that each of those examples is missing other elements of design as well (solid IA, layout, etc). Each of those examples overcomes the failings in design with other factors – community, functionality and usefulness (I didn’t say ease of use). Acceptance does not success make. And success does not reflect potential. Sure, the vocal opponents to changing the “design” may say they’ll leave if it changes, but they’ll easily be replaced as the site nears its potential.

So where does that get us? Design is not about aesthetics. Design is not about function. Design is not about ease of use or acheiving business goals. Design is about all of those things combined. A solid designer is capable of understanding how they all relate in order to convey a message.