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Why is design important?

I was recently asked this question. I knew I was going to be asked it, the conversation was heading that way. So I stopped to try and answer the question without sounding like a defensive designer.

The question was meant to be simple and not “why is the process of design important”, or “why are designers important” - but why is design important? No indication as to where it might be important or what the scope is. Just simply, why?

Its still open to discussion, in my conversation - can you help?

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PUBLISHED ON Apr.03.2003 BY damien
armin’s comment is:

One of the basics of the importance of design is for differentiation of products or services. My opinion is that every other importance of design comes back to this. You have to look different so people can tell you apart from the competition. One could say that the quality of the product or service is what should differentieate each one, but for a first time consumer or customer design is the only way of knowing what your options "look like."

I think...

On Apr.03.2003 at 06:34 PM
Damien’s comment is:

My first answer was "so that things don't happen by accident."

On Apr.03.2003 at 07:01 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

Yes, Damien...that's pretty much the answer.

It'd actually be difficult--if not impossible--to live in a world sans-design. Most anything that is man made is designed.

On Apr.03.2003 at 07:10 PM
christopher may’s comment is:

I'll make my answer as short as possible.

I don’t want to sound too philosophical but visual design is communication. Every piece of information we ingest or that has been communicated to us has been "created" whether by man, nature - with purpose or by accident. It is we as designers that try to put purpose or organization to the flow of information. We put order (and sometime disorder) in the way the message/idea/information is communicated. Whatever the point of the message is; who the intended recipient is; what voice you want the message relayed dictates how we approach the concept and/or execution. Are designers/design important? I think a more appropriate question is how much do we value communication? Knowing the answer to that, I think answers Damien's question.

- which I think is totally subjective to who you ask.

On Apr.03.2003 at 07:20 PM
Sam’s comment is:

I think there's a difference between design as a plan and graphic design in the sense of what things look like. Yes, everything is designed in that everything is made with some kind of intentionality and thought. But this would imply that design is important simply because design exists. That doesn't seem like what the question is getting at. Why is graphic design--broadly speaking, the manipulating of content and form to create communication, generate desire, educate, convince, dissemble, etc--why is this important? (Any other type of design besides graphic design works in the previous sentence.)

My answer is, it is important to try to make the world better, and design is important because it plays a real role in making the world what it is. It's important to make things easier to understand (so we don't have a repeat of the Florida ballot fiasco); to make it easier for work to get done and progress to be made (everything from a web interface that makes tracking packages online easy to the design of pencils or shoes or satellites); to give peasure both aesthetic (ie, Louise Fili, Design MW) and conceptual (Tibor). Design clarifies the way the world works (for example, a car dashboard clarifying how the AC works). Good design does this well, bad design creates confusion and even a kind of aesthetic depression (also known as the early 80s).

On Apr.03.2003 at 07:28 PM
Christopher May’s comment is:

I partially disagree with you Sam.

I don't think design (graphic for this argument) is only intended to make the world better. I think you have to look at the message and the preferred voice (mood/tone/emotion) to dictate what the communication does. I agree with every example you gave, but in addition to that, you can create many intentional negative messages and emotions with graphic design (protests, propaganda - things of this nature).

Design has so many purposes in our world and stating that it has one particular function - to make it better is hard to argue. I do think that clarity encompasses a large portion of design - but not all design.

On Apr.03.2003 at 07:55 PM
Corey’s comment is:

My understanding of what design is and why it is important is probably a little simplistic.

My clients come to me because they want to express themselves to the public but don't know how. They know exactly what they want to say but not how to say it. I help them find a common language to share with the user. Sometimes the client doesn't know exactly what it wants to say, and I help them form what the message is, as well as which language we'd like to use. I see design as being as important as an interpreter is between two people that don't speak the same language.

I think the reason that the person asked you why is design important is because consumers/users have learned a little of the language of the client. They understand enough to pick up the odd word here and there, but can't really carry on a proper conversation. There is a nascent feeling of power and that maybe the interpreter really isn't needed. What they don't realize is that both languages are fluid. Just when Nike thought it completely understood the public, the public's langauge changed and Nike found itself no longer 'cool'. Now it's trying to get into the new game by having Nike sponsored art galleries and the like.

The languages change all the time and there will always be a need for interpreters, no matter how clever either side becomes.

On Apr.03.2003 at 08:13 PM
Corey’s comment is:

I just reread my post and all I can think about is that guy from Office Space explaining his position in the company - "Goddamnit, I'm a people person", he screams, completely red in the face.

And to anger Arminn Vitt (he he) by including religion into the conversation - the public is God, the client is the masses and design is the Virgin Mary.

On Apr.03.2003 at 08:20 PM
Sam’s comment is:

Ah, and I partially agree with you, Chris. Actually, I completely agree that design is as much the making of negative messages as it is positive ones. But...I did not exactly mean to say design is intended to make the world better. That word leapt out at me, since it always introduces crazy confusion in discussions like this. Nor did I mean to say that the function of design is any one specific thing (ie, making the world better).

But the question of why design is important is kind of a specific question. I first read it to be capital-I Important, in the sense or culturally valuable, morally weighted, etc. Not in the sense of "Why should I hire you when my cousin has some fonts that came with his computer" important.

In this sense, the Important sense, I get frustrated. I don't think design has some special moral calling just because we deal with communication. There's a lot of hot air out of the AIGA that design is special, and it's self-serving and unconvincing. So I try to see design (ie, my profession) as a subset of the general question, What is important? What is the right way to be? Thus: It's important to make the world better. If you are a designer that means x-y-z; if you are a teacher, that means a-b-c (no pun intended); if you are, etc etc.

Now if I could just get this @*$&@# to work!!

On Apr.03.2003 at 08:32 PM
Sam’s comment is:

@*$&@# fax machine ... Office Space ... oh never mind...

On Apr.03.2003 at 08:47 PM
Jon’s comment is:

Yeeeah, Sam, that's greeeeaaaaaat.

On Apr.03.2003 at 08:57 PM
KM’s comment is:

Why is design important?

I think the answer is simple and can be applied universally - to differentiate. Well, I guess Armin pretty much covered that in the first comment... I suck.

On Apr.03.2003 at 09:18 PM
Su’s comment is:

Damien, do you happen to know what perspective the question was actually coming from? I figure there are several answers you could give this person that are all perfectly valid and interrelated, but any given one might not make sense, depending upon the situation.

Armin's response, and most of the others for that matter, would make sense if someone were interested in the business aspects of design, etc. whereas my knee-jerk reaction would be to say something like, "Well, if there weren't designers, everything would be ugly."

If it were simply a matter of differentiation, then Apple could've just made their machines stark white or primary red instead of "putty," for example.

Honestly, I'm finding most of your responses rather odd in a way I can't quite explain. Maybe it's the over(-in my view-)emphasis on business considerations.

On Apr.03.2003 at 09:27 PM
armin’s comment is:

>Maybe it's the over(-in my view-)emphasis on business considerations.

(Slowly opening pandora's box) Because we are business people not artists. (Dang, it's open)

On Apr.03.2003 at 10:35 PM
damien’s comment is:

The conversation was about trying to decide if design as a topic was important to people outside of design services.

It was put to me that surely I must know how to articulate the importance and value of design (all types) as I work in the field.

I think there is a distinction between what we intend to do with design and what the purpose of design is.

But it will depend on how you use the word - as a noun or verb.

Either way - design does encompass intent, creativity, communication, function, planning and purpose, which the result of is experienced by everyone in some way. Making it as such a relevant and important function of life.

When people say "Everything is designed", I tend to accompany that with " and everyone can design." Its just that some, practice and train to be specialists and skilled at various types of design. Which thus improves the quality of some designs.

I don't think it holds up well if you begin by asking "What is important" - as Graphic Design might not be someone else's first answer.

In the business context, I do think that designers (especially graphic designers) get exiled from the general process of business because the purpose of design is not always seen as relevant or important. Some firms get this, many don't. So does Apple consider design is important simply so that it can easily differentiate itself from its competitors?

On Apr.03.2003 at 10:44 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

> I think the answer is simple and can

> be applied universally - to differentiate.

Well, sometimes you want to design something specifically to NOT differentiate.

Design is just the process of planning something out.

Design is good, design is bad. The question is why is GOOD design important?

To be fair, this is a pretty broad question. Everything is designed, so we need to first decide if we're trying to talk about something more specific. Even 'graphic design' is too broad of a topic to argue whether or not it is important. (except that to a graphic design, it is important as it justifies our existence! ;o)

On Apr.03.2003 at 11:14 PM
KM’s comment is:

Well, sometimes you want to design something specifically to NOT differentiate.

For example?

On Apr.04.2003 at 12:55 AM
Brent’s comment is:

Design is import because it organizes and makes information/resources/assets (both physical and intellectual) usable.

That's my 2 cents... for now

On Apr.04.2003 at 01:21 AM
Su’s comment is:

Armin: Yes, yes, I know. I'm just wondering if the business approach is really the appropriate one, which of course depends on who's asking and why. If it's what you meant, I actually agree that design tends to be more on the business end of the scale than "art"(whatever the hell that is *grin*)

Damien: So does Apple consider design is important simply so that it can easily differentiate itself from its competitors?

I seriously doubt that. Have you ever taken a really good look at the construction of the G4s? Even the ribbon cables are non-standard(black v. gray). They've got high-quality drive cages, thicker-than-usual sheet metal with all edges rounded over or ground smooth; the plastic material itself is custom, not just the shapes. They've got to be damn expensive to make, compared with an off-the-shelf, or even just more traditionally-shaped case. Sure, they're trying to differentiate, but again, they could've accomplished that much cheaper(which is generally the more imperative concern for any business). They're obviously also putting a great deal of weight on the aesthetic value of their designs.

KM: As for non-differentiation, think of all the iMac(1st gen.) clones that appeared within months of the things being introduced. There was practically no attempt to make them distinctive in any way whatsoever. They were specifically engineered to look like the iMac, down to the colors available.

On Apr.04.2003 at 01:49 AM
KM’s comment is:

As for non-differentiation... There was practically no attempt to make them distinctive in any way whatsoever...

I would call that a copy, not design. ;)

On Apr.04.2003 at 07:12 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

> For example?

Oh, I dunno...maybe you're an inexpensive clothing company wanting to emulate a more expensive brand. Maybe you're Gateway trying to emulate the iMac. Sometimes you want to be different. Sometimes you don't.

> which is generally the more imperative concern for any busines

Certainly not always. In Apple's case, the premium price is very much an intentional design element.

> I would call that a copy, not design. ;)

To copy something is to design it.

On Apr.04.2003 at 12:45 PM
graham’s comment is:

why is design important?

because it is of human endeavour.

On Apr.04.2003 at 01:33 PM
TOM’s comment is:

Is design not important?

If understanding and utility is important, then design is important.

For every graphic design there is a message. It could be truth or lie, good or bad, consequential or not, but there is a message. The importance of graphic design is how well the message is delivered.

Design is not important because of differentiation. Differentiation is a key to success for market and brand position.

On Apr.04.2003 at 02:10 PM
Christopher may’s comment is:

Design is not important because of differentiation. Differentiation is a key to success for market and brand position.

I agree, but a corollary to that statement;

Design is not important ONLY because of differentiation. Differentiation is a key to success for market and brand position and if that is the goal of the design, than that makes it important for that reason. Design has so many facets that you have to look at what the purpose is. Some design is for selling which would support the above statement. Other design if for relaying information (ie; street sign) which would be about clarity. but the common function that all design shares, is the purpose or communicating some type of message/ idea/ information.

On Apr.04.2003 at 03:05 PM
Christopher May’s comment is:


correction to my last line

... is the purpose of communicating some type of message/ idea/ information.


On Apr.04.2003 at 03:10 PM
plain*clothes’s comment is:

this is not entirely unstated information here, but I think my opinions diverge ever so slightly in meaningful ways.

first and foremost, my point of contention with the remarks here is that differentiation has nothing to do with the importance or purpose of design; it is a by-product of effectively representing unique messages (ie, if they are unique). differentiation is neither an end nor a means, but a side effect.

to more directly address the question at hand (why is design of importance/interest to those who do not execute it regularly?) I considered it from a design user's point of view (something we should be doing all day). from this vantage point, and with a designer's knowledge of design's influence, the importance is found in the fact that everything society sees/uses/experiences is mediated by design's processes and conventions. should the general public begin to consider design, it would enable itself to more fully understand the verbal/textual/visual communication that bombards it from every conceivable angle. I don't think there is any doubt that our society, which is so overwhelmed with consumerist propaganda, is in grave need of analytical skills.

On Apr.04.2003 at 05:03 PM
KM’s comment is:

>To copy something is to design it.

Technically speaking. But c'mon... not really.

On Apr.04.2003 at 05:24 PM
Darrel’s comment is:


To create anything in a planned manner is to design it. So, yea, really...it is design. :o)

On Apr.04.2003 at 06:11 PM
Nick Finck’s comment is:

Some interesting comments so far. My thought is that since design (IMHO) is about solving problems with compromises, I would have to say design is important because if we didn't have it there would be no compromises. Furthermore since design is considered subjective in nature, we would otherwise only be resolving problems for ourselves, the designers. And that is simply backwards. The irony, of course, is that designers often approch work in that light.

On Apr.04.2003 at 06:22 PM
Su’s comment is:

> which is generally the more imperative concern for any busines

Certainly not always. In Apple's case, the premium price is very much an intentional design element.

I would counter that Macs have always been somewhat overpriced, and that their users are largely numb to it by now, which probably contributed to Jobsy thinking he could get away with charging nearly as much for a point upgrade as for the original – flawed – install of OSX, which basically made it what it should have been in the first place, ie: usable. Maybe they threw in another few thousand in fonts with the 10.2 disc.

Also, Apple has an effective monopoly(not counting that aborted clone attempt a while back) plus a fanatical user base, and can therefore get away with making things expensive that don't particularly need to be because people will buy them anyway. They're making much more use of it lately, and it's seriously biting them in the ass.

On Apr.04.2003 at 06:32 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

> Furthermore since design is

> considered subjective in nature

Some aspects of design are subjective, but many aspects are completely measurable/quantifiable.

We need to design a bridge from point x to point y that can accomodate z. You can certainly measure the success of the bridge's design in terms of meeting x, y, and z. Now, aesthetically, that may be a subjective reaction.


Poltical Mac debates aside, It's not about Jobs "thinking he could get away" with that pricing...it was a very intential design decision.

On Apr.04.2003 at 07:48 PM
mary’s comment is:

Very intriguing discussion here. I am a Visual Critic doing research on the DNA double helix symbol and am struck by the iconic stature this symbol has assumed. I find it fascinating that, as a simple graphical symbol, it has little in common with the actual mechanical workings and structure of DNA. Ironic that we now know our genetic structure by this symbol that few of us really understand. Any thoughts from a design perspective on how this simplification process works? How is a complex idea streamined into a tidy symbol? What about all the information that symbol leaves out? What about its adoption by all sorts of concerns outside science? Your comments are appreciated.

On Apr.04.2003 at 09:00 PM
plain*clothes’s comment is:

Mary said...

Any thoughts from a design perspective on how this simplification process works?

this sounds like a new thread to me, but...

in relation to this thread, simplification is a central component in designing communication. in addition to the omnipresent requirement of effectiveness, many times the message must be delivered with potentially devastating brevity. it is left to the designer (among others) to distill the primary concept into it's most essential components. the importance of each facet of the message must be weighed according to the needs of the receiver as well as the agenda of the sender. it is this mediation that I was referring to in my earlier post; a change takes place during the process of design and, ultimately, the user must be aware of this in order to fully understand the message.

On Apr.04.2003 at 09:58 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

> I am a Visual Critic

Oh PLEASE tell us how you got that job title! I think that'd be my dream job!

On Apr.04.2003 at 10:10 PM
Damien’s comment is:

Darrel - you have to go to college to get that title. I think Mary's doing research at a college.

On Apr.04.2003 at 10:13 PM
KM’s comment is:

Darrel - why are you being so assertive?

On Apr.04.2003 at 10:27 PM
Mary’s comment is:

Plain Clothes-What may seem like a new thread relates directly (I think) to the initial query of why design is important. I would assert one reason is the brevity and truncation of information, as you mentioned. As for effectiveness, how does one measure that if the result is misleading or oversimplifying, as in the DNA example? Do you think most users are aware of this simplification process? I think, more often than not, people tend to take things at face value alone as it is easier, less taxing.

Darrell- This is a graduate studies program I am in at the California College of Arts and Crafts. If you are so inclined, there is a lack of critical writing about design, both graphic and industrial, and many magazines are looking for contributors. If anyone has sources for design criticism, I'd love to hear about them.

On Apr.04.2003 at 10:43 PM
Jon’s comment is:


The level of communication required is really based on the target audience. I would offer that for most people, they don't need to truly understand the in-depth workings of a DNA molecule beyond it's shared pairs and helical shape, so this simplification works for them. (I will admit here that I don't know much about it beyond this, so please feel free to provide some more info in this dept.) In other instances, where the viewer may have more extensive knowledge in the DNA field, then the simplification may really function as a visual cue to them that brings recollections of all they do know about DNA. And this is a great reason why design is so valuable and important: it can communicate the right thing to the appropriate audience in a very brief moment.

On Apr.04.2003 at 11:03 PM
plain*clothes’s comment is:

Mary said...

As for effectiveness, how does one measure that if the result is misleading or oversimplifying, as in the DNA example?

misleading in what way? it all depends on whether this presentation is intended as a scientific map of the subject or simply a signifier. if the viewer wants to know how DNA is constucted, then they need to investigate rather than looking to logos and other simplistic signifier-type illustrations. now, if there is a shortage of true to reality illustrations for research purposes, that's an entirely different matter.

Do you think most users are aware of this simplification process? I think, more often than not, people tend to take things at face value alone as it is easier, less taxing.

that is absolutely my point. design is important because it is a mediator; if you don't realize the mediator is there, you're not getting the whole story. most users are decidedly ignorant -- that is the issue that needs to be addressed in order to avoid some Huxleyan societal mess.

to say that simplification is equivalent to lying is foolish; simplification is just a way of refining the message. the receiver must be analytical rather than passive as they absorb information. if people can't fill in the blanks, then either communiation is going to get very cluttered or people are just going to have to deal with blanks.

On Apr.04.2003 at 11:14 PM
Damien’s comment is:

And this is a great reason why design is so valuable and important: it can communicate the right thing to the appropriate audience in a very brief moment.

Absolutely, from everything like how to use a ticket machine, open a door or see where a fire exit is.

Mary - can you tell us why the DNA double helix symbol was created and how it came to be popularised? And also - why does it strictly matter that it is an oversimplification of the structure of DNA?

On Apr.04.2003 at 11:19 PM
Gazala’s comment is:

a world without design would only cause utter chaos in this already upturned world.

On Apr.05.2003 at 06:11 PM
ip address’s comment is:

hey man, just want to say hi

On May.04.2003 at 03:57 AM
armin’s comment is:

uh... hi?

On May.05.2003 at 08:41 AM
Carina’s comment is:

Actually, apart from all the reasons that all you guys have come up with..

Imagine a world where the word 'design' doesn't exist. What will all the would-be designers do?

I think designers are born to be designers. It isn't whether design is important. It's as much a part of our world as air is because there will definitely always be an attempt by someone, somewhere to try and make things look better/work better for themselves and/or other people. It's a natural process.

So since it's inevitable, I suppose it only makes sense (as it has already happened) to single out the process as a discipline by itself and to make it better. Thus design is important.

On Apr.05.2005 at 01:33 AM
Frank’s comment is:

I think Design is like the Environment because:

1.) People like looking at pretty colors.

2.) Yet it is an after-thought, not a big priority.

3.) Clients think they own it, not the Creator.

4.) Most people have no idea how it works.

5.) The real beauty lies behind the surface.

6.) Apples are good for you.

7.) If it didn't exist, the world would be barren.

8.) A small group of people try to raise public

awareness, but is largely in vain.

9.) People who seem to care about it are seen

as eccentric & have their own clubs.

10.) Why is it so important? Because thanks to it,

we can put bread on the table!

On Apr.05.2005 at 03:11 AM
piggy’s comment is:

Is design important?

Emm�from my point of view yes,design is very important.

As we know “Design considered in the context of the applied arts, engineering, architecture, and other such creative endeavors.” Design includes - communication design, fashion design, game design, environmental design, garden design, packaging design, interior design, industrial design, graphic design, software design, website design information design etc. There is a word that I can describe design - purposefulness.

Which is not designed in our daily life?

Man beings are living in the designed world. Designs affect our life daily. For example building that you stays, books that you read, computer that you use food that you buy, signage that direct you to the destination, clothes you wear, fonts you use etc. What is not been designed? Design is what you see, uses, experience daily. It makes our life better, interesting and beautiful. As we can see designs play an important role, in the society today. Design is now an equal partner with many enterprises including technology, business, urban planning, science, medicine and education.

Designers are great, they must gain respect!

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year


On Dec.16.2005 at 02:24 AM
maryam’s comment is:

design is imprtant becouse it can change a simple thing to a beautiful thing without design things are boring and not nice

On Nov.29.2006 at 01:17 PM
nancy’s comment is:

To satisfy whoever has a body.

On Jun.17.2008 at 01:32 PM
Alex’s comment is:

Wow, first off I stumbled upon this page from a google search and was so captivated that I read the entire thing. I'm a graphic design student and found this very thought provoking.

Now that I'm posting this I actually read the dates and it makes me sad that this started about 5 years ago...

On Oct.29.2008 at 01:36 PM