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A Verb or a Noun?

The question is not whether it is worthwhile to talk about design, but rather how we should talk about it in the first place. I have a huge problem with the “Design is…” approach, the notion that design can save the world or sell more products or win or lose an election. Et cetera. Design is not a noun — as has been said many times before, design is a verb.

To treat design as an object, an entity capable of something, deflects the responsibility away from where it really should land, which is on those who create. It wasn’t the fault of a ballot that Dubya “won” Florida, its the fault of the designer. The credit does not belong to the MINI for selling so well, it belongs to the designers of the MINI (and to be fair, many many others).

I’ve had it with talking about design in the noun sense. You’re a designer. You have problems with things, you have desires, ideals, goals and objectives. What are you going to do about it? What’s your plan?

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PUBLISHED ON Mar.11.2004 BY bradley
surts’s comment is:

Design is a verb, could I add that it is an optimistic pursuit? I'd always been one to advocate that the concept or idea is more important than the final outcome. Now I'm not so sure, in the end your left with what the eye sees. The visual is something that just is, you either get it or you don't.

On Mar.12.2004 at 12:20 AM
bryony’s comment is:

I'd always been one to advocate that the concept or idea is more important than the final outcome.

They-are-one-and-together. While the concept and rational behind something is essencial to it's success, the way in which it is developed and produced is what will make it work. A great idea dies if you can't deliver the message in its entirety.

On Mar.12.2004 at 08:32 AM
Greg’s comment is:

It wasn't the fault of a ballot that Dubya "won" Florida, its the fault of the designer. The credit does not belong to the MINI for selling so well, it belongs to the designers of the MINI (and to be fair, many many others).

I like this. Although to be fair, I think the ballots weren't so much "designed" as they were just thrown together. But the fault lies wth the thrower.

Anyway, it looks a little like Roland Barthes concept of the signifier vs. the signified. We tend to blame the word "design" when things go wrong( oh, the design was all wrong), and tend to glorify ourselves when things go right (look at what I designed!).

On Mar.12.2004 at 08:48 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

Design is not a noun


A drawing or sketch.

A graphic representation, especially a detailed plan for construction or manufacture.

The purposeful or inventive arrangement of parts or details: the aerodynamic design of an automobile; furniture of simple but elegant design.

The art or practice of designing or making designs.

Something designed, especially a decorative or an artistic work.

An ornamental pattern. See Synonyms at figure.

A basic scheme or pattern that affects and controls function or development: the overall design of an epic poem.

A plan; a project. See Synonyms at plan.

A reasoned purpose; an intent: It was her design to set up practice on her own as soon as she was qualified.

Deliberate intention: He became a photographer more by accident than by design.

A secretive plot or scheme. Often used in the plural: He has designs on my job.

On Mar.12.2004 at 08:55 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

(I do that those are some rather poor definitions, though)

On Mar.12.2004 at 08:56 AM
marian’s comment is:

deflects the responsibility away from where it really should land, which is on those who create.

The problem I see with this is that in most situations there is no single "creator." The designer, the client, and in some instances the audience collaborate to arrive at the final experience of the design. I do not think that designers bear the full burden of responsibility for everything they have helped to create, any more than they deserve a mantle of honour if that creation (or design) is great.

So in this the act of designing is not more important than the final design. Design the verb is only one contributing factor to Design the noun.

On Mar.12.2004 at 09:35 AM
Brady’s comment is:


You are absolutely right. Design should be known as the process through which we "produce objects".

We often hear people say, "That is a beautiful design." Albeit, they would not-- according to any dictionary -- be incorrect in saying so. What we need to do as designers is get people saying,

"That is a well designed car."

"That is an effectively designed annual report."

"That package is designed in a way that moves me to purchase."

While those statements sound quite remedial, it is a starting point for shifting understanding about what we do. Not to mention it is what our clients want to hear.

The AIGA Designing initiative… OK, WAIT! Put the stones down and let me finish!

The AIGA Designing initiative is the organization's attempt at addressing that very problem. The organization has been very design-object-centric in the past; now the strategy is to focus on the process of design and how to integrate that process into the development of not only graphic communication, but products and services as well. The strategy is more inclusive of all design disciplines -- product, architecture, etc. -- due to the obvious crossover that they share with graphic design.

By underscoring the importance of the process works toward ensuring our place at the beginning of defining the needs and challenges of our clients initiatives.

Maybe then people will begin referring to design more as a verb (the process of designing) rather than the noun (the product of design).

Download the PDF of the new What Every Business Needs. booklet from AIGA here; and use it when speaking to your clients about that new project.

On Mar.12.2004 at 09:44 AM
damien’s comment is:

The only place I've seen difficulty in how to use the term design is in the context of graphic design - with people from marketing departments. In all other areas of design, architecture, product and even interaction design - it is always discussed as a process, a collaboration and with objectives other than just looking good.

Graphic design however, is seen as a craft by 'outsiders' and that graphic designers produce 'graphics' and these graphics are 'design'. So lazy people in corporations don't consider how to look at 'good design' or even embark on a process of design. These lazy people say, "I'm looking forward to your designs, and what you come up with" and walk away. Hence, as much as the graphic designer wishes to suggest that it is a process - the process really doesn't mean as much to these people as other types of design.

Essentially, the process of graphic design is not as inclusive or collaborative as other types of design, and so it is difficult for many different types of people to make meaningful input to areas that an extremely skilled graphic designer takes care of. If you pull out of this specialist areas of design like information design, and are able to develop a heuristic method for analyzing the success of the designed piece - then you might be able to have a better discussion with people about the process of graphic design, and its importance in every day life. Without that - people tend to treat graphic design as a craft, and one left to those who wear black and work in the marketing departments of corporate America.

I've recently taken a job where I now get to shape the marketing and design department. So I will do my damnedest to ensure the process of design prevails throughout all functions of the business - in part by also hiring people who understand this and believe that design is not just left to 'designers'.

On Mar.12.2004 at 10:31 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Of interest, is this description by Joseph Michael Essex [PDF] that I mentioned a few months ago.

When the AIGA originally went from Design to Designing I did laud the effort and still do — the tangible result is what bothered me initially (and I'll comment on it on the Thanks AIGA thread that just got revived). But their determination to shift to Design as a process is essential to their development as well as the profession's (through them).

On Mar.12.2004 at 11:16 AM
Brook’s comment is:

i think the thing that absolutely reinforces why the emphasis needs to move towards process and action... is when you see the job listing for "graphics designer." all you do is make little pictures, right? those businesses do not see the designer as part of the communication process, just as someone who comes in at the end to make some acceptable representation of whatever message they are trying to convey. they don't realize that images communicate, and insist that you assume the audience is a bunch of idiots who can only understand what is explicitly stated to them.

On Mar.12.2004 at 02:32 PM
Jason’s comment is:

The designer designed the design in a designerly way.

Design is everything and everywhere.

On Mar.12.2004 at 04:41 PM
Rob’s comment is:

this is so relative to the discussion i just had today with my boss, trying to convince him that design is not just about production or picking stock images, but that it's about coming up wtih tangible, visual solutions to communications problems. I don't think I totally convinced him but I will continue to educate him until he sees the light.

On Mar.12.2004 at 10:52 PM
Armin’s comment is:

What is interesting about Bradley's original post/concern is that shifting from design to designing brings more accountability and responsibility to the person in charge of designing. Which makes a huge difference, the moment you are (and become) a part of the process in a more serious way the results of your work will be a hundred times better — simply because you are taking responsibility for your actions and your process of designing not just of the design.

If something goes wrong (or right!) it will because of what you did to do what you did not just what you did (ha! how about that?).

On Mar.13.2004 at 09:23 AM
Bradley’s comment is:

Essentially I just feel very strongly about finishing what you start--all the brilliant thinking and conceptual majesty in the world amounts to nothing if you don't create something in the end. What you make demonstrates the thinking behind it, and the better job you do the more purity there is. For us, as graphic designers, I really think the results of our actions should be tangible because that's what we're trained to do and paid to do. We don't design "processes," we use a process to get from nothing to something.

Why most people in this country see design as this odd little crafty addendum to "what really matters" is not a mystery to me at all: we have a hell of a time explaining ourselves and spend even more time coming up with disparate definitions and rationales for our profession. Additionally, I don't know that we take the profession seriously enough, but I know more graphic designers who take themselves waaaaay too seriously. For whatever reason we allow people who understand nothing of the mechanics of design to boss us around and make decisions in regards to it. Silly.

For me it gets down to how you look at this field: is it an action or an object? Noun or a verb? This is America, and in America, people respond to action.

On Mar.14.2004 at 02:48 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> We don't design "processes," we use a process to get from nothing to something.

Probably I'm just arguing semantics here but I think we do design our own process through wich we then process our work… if you know what I mean.

> For whatever reason we allow people who understand nothing of the mechanics of design to boss us around and make decisions in regards to it. Silly.

Bradley, do you mean clients?

On Mar.15.2004 at 04:59 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

Know what you mean re: process.

And yes, clients--or in my case, clients and account execs. Well, not ME but certain people at my agency I suppose...I am, of course, abrasive about these things.

On Mar.15.2004 at 08:13 PM
surts’s comment is:

I was cruising through icograda's web site when I came across the Design Council's site link. It has an interesting explanation of what design is. One of the more memorable and optimistic answers was from Richard Seymour - making things better for people.

What is Design

On Mar.16.2004 at 10:58 AM