How do you explain what design is to the uninitiated?

research, teaching

The first challenge of explaining design is that it exists at all. Most people don’t think of the things they use all day as being designed by someone. They’re busy trying to get things done. For most people, things just ‘exist’ and there’s little reason to think about how they work, or how they were made or why unless they are broken.

This is part of why the profession of design is poorly understood. When it’s done well it’s hard to notice. Which perpetuates the idea that designers work either isn’t important or isn’t that hard.

I recently asked designers what example, story or tactic they use to get people over that first step. Here’s the list:

  • Buying shoes: everyone knows they have to try multiple pairs, make cost/style/comfort tradeoffs, and revise requirements as they learn (which mirrors the process designers go through)
  • The book Why Design? offered:
    • Have you ever rearranged the furniture in your room?
    • Tried to open a window but it was sealed for climate control?
    • Created a sign to find a lost pet?
    • Built a sandcastle?
    • Misunderstood a road sign?
  • Being over 40 and trying to read any fine print
  • TV remotes that are hard to use
  • Trying to use restaurant websites
  • Pick a product they like and ask which one they’d recommend – and ask what about the design of one vs. the other makes it better
  • Building a house and then changing the location of a bathroom partway through the build.

What other tactics or stories have you used to help people to start to see the world more like designers do? Leave a comment.

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