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.

Research: what designed thing is the worst in history?


This was a fun twitter research question I asked last week. Of course, since people self-select and many folks who follow me work in tech or are designers the answers aren’t quite representative of what most people would say.

The way I asked the question could have been better – I mean I think that things like the Nazi regime are probably in the top 10 (and with our problems today, use of those ideas is still alive), as well as the design of our entire consumer goods industry which is the major contributor to greenhouse gases that will likely be the end of us all. But it’s natural for people to think of “designed things” as devices and gadgets, things we interact with directly at a human scale.

That said, here’s the list:

What’s missing? Leave a comment. Thanks.

A book on Design Literacy for Everyone


Everything we use, from social media, to our homes, to our highways, was designed by someone. But how did they decide on what was good for the rest of us? What did they get right and where have they let us down? And what can we learn from the way these experts think that can help us in how we make decisions in our own lives?

This book will takes readers on a thrilling journey through their daily lives, exploring how designers of all kinds, from software engineers, to urban planners, have succeeded and failed us. By offering a fresh way to think about everyday life and the impact of technology on how we live, readers will learn to see the world in a new and powerful way. They’ll see better ways to manage projects, make decisions and understand how creative people develop good ideas. They’ll ask better questions of the things they buy, use, and make, and discover how fun it can be to use ideas from great designers to improve their everyday lives.