Thursday, May 29, 2008

Definition of Design

I have been trying to figure out a generic definition of design -- a single-sentence definition that applies to all types of designs that we have seen, created, or envisioned. I guess it’s time to share my thoughts so that we evolve a definition collaboratively.

When I think of design there are five aspects that come to my mind: requirements (purpose), elements, function, space, and arrangement (or placement, form). In addition, there is a product (or service) for which design is developed.

I think purpose is the first thing that should be determined. Purpose or requirements help us distinguish between a good design and a bad design – a good design would fulfill all the requirements.

Then there are elements or ingredients that form the final product. For example, the elements of a car design would be seats, dashboard, and engine, color, and so on. It’s important to note that each of these elements would have their own ‘designs’ and therefore elements that form them. These elements should be selected based on the requirements. For example, there is no need to have a small LCD screen on a TV remote because its purpose is to control the TV from a distance and not to show a preview. Each element has attributes that makes the element appropriate for the stated requirements. For example, the thickness of RCC slab used in roofs would be designed based on the load it has to carry.

The elements would have some function, which is the third aspect of design. Design need not have the elements functional but the definition should be clear and they should map with the requirements. For example, when we want to control the volume of a video running on our computer, we prefer a slider rather than a button control because a slider saves us the repeated clicks.

The elements would be arranged in some space. By space I mean the constraints (or specifications) under which the design of the final product should be developed. For example, a gear needs to fit in a space, a painting needs to fit in a canvas, and a theme park should be designed within the space in which it will be housed.

The last aspect is the arrangement. By arrangement I mean the layout, the structure, sequence, or the relative location of elements to best meet the requirements. For example, a course has a content outline that defines the chunking and sequence of modules, lessons, topics, etc. Unfortunately, this aspect is generally over emphasized and equated with the design.

So let’s try to define design keeping the above aspects in mind.

I would say design is: The description of the functionality and arrangement of elements in a space to ensure that the requirements from the final product are fulfilled.

While I have considered many aspects in the above definition, it’s possible that I have ignored/missed some aspects. I also feel that the above definition is too scientific. However, design is more of an art than science. Would anyone help me reach a solid and appropriate definition?

And my second question is: if you agree with this definition, do you think that there is a generic process that can be followed to design anything? In other words, is there a sequence in which the above aspects need to be defined or a designer can follow any sequence?


Anamika B on May 29, 2008 at 2:54 PM said...

Thanks for sharing your views. It is a well rounded definition of Design. It gives a clear perspective and scope of what design stands for...

Good Going training Guru

Abhinava S.N on May 30, 2008 at 10:04 AM said...

Hi... My name is Abhinava... I am an eLearning professional from Bangalore... I liked the content of your blog... found it interesting.

Me definition of design would be "The Most optimum solution to a Definite problem"

Notice, i choose not to use the words 'Product' or 'Functionality' or 'Space'.

Design is universal, and a great design is Elegant (Toyota Principle: Elegance is the Simplicity on the far side of Complexity)

Do get in touch with me at i would love to continue this discussion...

Ranit on May 30, 2008 at 10:08 PM said...

Hi Abhinava, thanks for your comments.

Your definition is definitely crisp. However, it makes me feel that good design and optimum solution are synonyms. Is it really so? For example, if I have a problem that I reach late for work and I decide to wake up 20 minutes early so that I reach office on time (and I am successful), can I say that this is a design? I think we “design” a solution so they are not synonyms. What do you say?

Abhinava S.N on June 5, 2008 at 11:52 AM said...

Hi Ranit,

The word 'Design' to me has two connotations; one, as the process of design and two as the articulation (definition) of the design.
I think of design as the roadmap to solving a problem (any problem). A solution starts with the roadmap and goes on to actually solve the problem. The design of the solution will provide all means to actually solve the problem.

To explain with your example:

Problem definition:
You need to reach office 20 minutes earlier

Possible solutions:
1. Wake up 20 minutes earlier
2. Drive faster
3. Shift closer to office
4. Shift office and home to the next time zone
5. Build a dedicated road from office to home and avoid traffic
6. Leave at the same time but do not bother dropping kids to school (make alternative arrangements)

Note: all of these are probable solutions however impractical they might sound. Based on your analysis of the problem, you will then choose ‘the most optimum solution’; this is design.
Once you have figured out what it is that you need to do, you go ahead and enable this (development), do it (implement it), and test to see if it is actually working (evaluate it).
From a holistic POV, ADDIE is the process of solving any problem; or finding the solution to the problem.

What say ye?

Ranit on June 7, 2008 at 10:51 AM said...

Hi Abhinava,
I agree with you when you say "I think of design as the roadmap to solving a problem (any problem). A solution starts with the roadmap and goes on to actually solve the problem. The design of the solution will provide all means to actually solve the problem."
However, I differ when you say "Based on your analysis of the problem, you will then choose 'the most optimum solution'; this is design."
This seems to be saying that a design can only be 'good'. But we have bad or poor designs, don't we? So I dont agree that design is the most optimum roadmap. Also, this seems to restrict design to just selecting an optimum solution. I think design is much more than that.

Coming back to your definition "The Most optimum solution to a Definite problem". Since design is the roadmap to a solution, we should replace the word solution with 'the roadmap to a solution'. But then, the word roadmap is used mataphorically here so would require another definition. So i think your definition needs to be made more comprehensive. What do you say?

I agree that ADDIE is one of the processes of solving any problem. However, it can't be said that it is the design process because ADDIE has 'design' as the second step. So I would still say that design and solution are not synonyms.

Clark Starr on July 10, 2008 at 9:00 PM said...

I'm working my backwards up some of the posts on the blog and previously asks: "why do you need to define 'design'?"

I still don't understand what such a definition is for. As instructional designers, we design a very specific "thing" (for lack of a better term). Our focus should always just be on: what can I do to help people do whatever it is they want to do.

Lots of "dos" I know, but I think that's the root of it. Of course there's a lot of stuff in the first "do" of that sentence, stuff like: usability, stuff like analysis, stuff like activity design, stuff like logistics, etc., etc., etc.

Making what we do complex doesn't make it easier.

Akshay on January 8, 2010 at 12:53 PM said...

Submitted on 2009/06/10 at 10:29am

Hi Ranit

Nice post. But a little confusing. I generally like to keep it simple and somehow your definition of a design reminded me of quantum physics with arrangement of objects in space and time. I think we also romanticize the word design when most of us with various designs end up with the same final product. I would define a design as a document which has a list of topics i want to teach, the strategies i want to use, my limitations and risks, and final dates. In this era of rapid e-learning where most of the times customers do not know why they want training spending too much time on design leads to inflated development ratios which is a killer.

Ranit said...

Submitted on 2009/06/10 at 3:40pm

Hi Akshay, yeah now that you have mentioned, it does remind me of quantum physics. Your definition of design is in context of a phase in course development, right? But don’t we design a page layout while storyboarding or doesn’t a graphic designer design a graphic to complement text on a page? Also, I was looking for a more generic definition of design. Something that can be applied to any product, a car, a radio, a course, a handbag, a training, or anything. Do you think the definition I provided (however scientific it may sound) does not apply to any situaion? Do you have any suggestions to simplify the definition while keeping it generic?

Akshay said...

Submitted on 2009/06/10 at 4:19pm

Yeah to define all possible uses of the word design it would be tougher to come out with something simpler. One example that came to my mind that what if i want to design a laser lock or new telescope and your definition fits most of it. Nice job. I read it from a complete ID frame of mind.

One question though.. why would you possibly want to define a simple word like design.. its like trying to define love.. the word sounds simple but has so may layers that is hard to define.

Great job though.. :-)

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