What Are You Designing, Exactly?

Note: This is Part 5 of the Ruminations for Aspiring Designers series.

In Design: The Key Concepts, D. J. Huppatz examines design in terms of six concepts:

  • Information
  • Things
  • Interactions
  • Systems and services
  • Experiences
  • Strategies

That is very useful model for us to articulate what we’re designing as designers.

It’s very tempting to say, well, in most cases we are designing all of them, albeit to a different extent for each.

That may be true, but in more cases, you can always identify no more than two core concepts as the absolute centre of a design effort, in the context of your role.

If you’re asked to conduct user research for a product design project, then what are you designing? You’re probably designing information and maybe a little bit of strategies, because the research insight is likely to influence how information is organized in a product, and even product directions in the form of a roadmap.

If you’re asked to improve an existing website’s usability, you’re primarily designing interactions and maybe a tiny little bit of experiences.

The notion of the six concepts is especially useful when you try to articulate why you think you love design or want to become a designer – chances are, you came to love design due to a specific engagement with it. But here’s the catch: that goal-defining experience is likely to involve only one or two of the six concepts and, therefore, is in no way representative of what design – as an activity, profession or career – is like generally.

I’ve heard a lot of aspiring designers talking about how they came to love design due to a chance encounter with designing a website, an app, a marketing or branding gig and so on. And that brought them to the idea of becoming a “real” designer. To which I’d always say, that’s great, while that’s just a small part of design.

If you want to become a designer, you have a lot more to figure out.

You can choose to become a specialist who works with only one or two of the six concepts. You can also choose to become a generalist who works with most of them. The different combinations of the concepts may lead you to wildly different organizations, businesses and industries. The people whom you choose to work with may have significant impact on your professional development and your career growth.

Whatever gets you in the game, what are you designing exactly? Why? How do you want to grow as a designer?

How Design Makes the World may hold some great answers for you. Notes on Design: How Creative Practice Works may hold some others.

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