Design, most conventionally, refers to how something looks or works. For instance, by any measure, the Apple iPhone is well designed: the colors it displays are brilliant; it fits in your pocket; it’s easy to use as a camera, a recording device, or phone; and it provides easy access to friends, music, and the internet.
Yet, across discourse communities, design may refer to more than whether or not a text or product looks good or accomplishes its aims. For instance, design may also be defined as
- a social construct
- a form of visual language, a mode of human communication
- a signifier of identity and community
- a subject of study, an academic discipline, a catechism regarding us, an interpretative framework, based on principles of design.
Writers, designers, and usability experts design texts and products by composing with design elements (e.g., Color – Color Theory; Line; Shape; Space; Typography). Additionally, they consult their knowledge of design principles — (e.g., alignment; balance; color; Contrast; Emphasis; Gestalt, Gestalt Theory; Proximity; Repetition) in order to inform their compositions.
Definitions of Design
1. Design Refers to How a Text, Application, or Product Looks or Works
For writers, design largely concerns
- the visual appeal of a text
- the use of data visualizations and other elements of design and visual language
- the usability of a text
- the page design & scannability of a text
2. Design is a Social Construct
Design is a social, historical construct rooted in art, culture & technology–and the ongoing conversation of humankind. Different cultures and different time periods have distinct conceptions of design.
3. Design is a Form of Visual Language
Design refers to much more than how something looks or works. Design may serve as a mode of communication.
Audiences read the design of a text or product just as they read words and sentences. Yet rather than words or sentences, they read design elements: They trace the line on the page or screen. They note the images, colors, shapes, contrast, spaces, and typography of the copy. They consider the alignment, balance, proximity, repetition of symbols. And then they interpret these symbolic elements to mean something. Their interpretation may be experienced as a form of felt sense of gestalt. In other words, they engage in acts of communication.
4. Design May Function as a Signifier of Identity and Community
In business, companies spend small fortunes defining their brand. They aim to distinguish their products and services. Thus, it’s fairly commonplace for business and nonprofit organizations to have style guidelines.
Typically style guidelines
- call for standard written English
- call for a professional writing style
- call for a particular citation style
- define logo, color, and photo-usage guidelines.
5. Design May Refer to a Curriculum, a Catechism, a Subject of Study
Design is an interdisciplinary field of study, a discourse community, subsuming the arts, engineering, sciences, and humanities. Courses of study in Design explore a variety of topics, including Accommodations, Aesthetics (see Design Principles, Information Architecture, Information Design, Usability).
Communities of Practice engage in scholarship and empirical research aimed at improving clarity in communications. Over time, thanks to the ongoing conversations of humankind and changes to the affordances and constraints of new technologies, communities develop conventions and best practices for designing applications, instruments, prototypes, products, and services.
Recommended Books on Design
- Cooper, A., Reimann, R., Cronin, D., & Noessel, C. (2014). About face: The essentials of interaction design (4th ed.). Wiley.
- Krug, S. (2013). Don’t make me think, revisited: A common sense approach to web usability (3rd ed.). New Riders.
- Norman, D. (2013). The design of everyday things: Revised and expanded edition. Basic Books.
- Williams, R. (2014). Non-designer’s design book (4th ed.). Peachpit Press.