Design refers to much more than how something looks or works. Design is a powerful tool of communication that empowers you to reach your audience at the visual level. Learn about design elements, principles, conventions and goals so you can gain the attention of your audience and communicate with greater clarity and persuasiveness.  

Design Definition – Summary

Design, most conventionally, is how something looks or works.

Yet, design is also

7 Definitions of Design

1. Design is a semiotic system, a way of communicating to others

Design is a form of visual language, which is a powerful mode of human communication.

2. Design is a Signifier of Identity

People, as you know, disagree about style. What some folks might consider cool, others might consider absurd.

As individuals and communities engage in ongoing scholarly conversations about topics, they develop a design that is unique to their purpose and identify. Thus, over time, some individuals, groups, organizations, countries (and so on) are known by their designs. In business, companies spend small fortunes on defining their brand, which includes stylistic issues such as templates for company texts.

Designs can be expressed in a variety of mediums, a variety of canvasses:

  • the painter works with oils on cloth canvas
  • the videographer works with Adobe Creative Cloud
  • the architect, engineer, and construction professional works with AutoCAD.

Design can be a way of classifying or identifying a material item. For instance, you might say a building has a Victorian style or an Islamic style. Or you could say someone typically dresses in a business casual style, a street style, or dress techie chic.

[ Semiotics: Sign, Signifier, Signified ]

3. A Way of Thinking, a Method for Developing Applications, Products, and Services

“Design is a fun word. Some people think design means how it looks.
But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.” 

Steve Jobs

Design, by one definition, is a way of thinking, a way of solving problems, and a way of developing solutions for particular users/audiences in particular rhetorical situations,

Design Thinking is a method for developing applications, instruments, prototypes, products, and services. It is a human-centered, empirical research method that employs user-centric methods (e.g., customer discovery interviews, focus groups, usability studies) to solve problems and develop products and applications that people want.

4. A Catechism, a Set of Assumptions

Communities of Practice engage in scholarship and empirical research aimed at improving clarity in communications. Over time, based on past practices, communities develop conventions and best practices (see Design Principles). These practices evolve over time, thanks to changes to the affordances and constraints of new technologies.

5. A Social Construct

Design is a social, historical construct rooted in art, culture & technology. Different cultures and different time periods have distinct conceptions of aesthetics, data visualization, information architecture, and information design.

6. A Curriculum

Courses of study in Design explore a variety of topics, including Accommodations, Aesthetics (see Design Principles, Information Architecture, Information Design, Usability.

7. A Subject of Study, an Academic Discipline

Over time user communities cluster around designs, interpretations of designs, and reoccuring rhetorical situations (see Genre). Professional, business, and academic communities form around design methods, design thinking, design styles, and the design definition.

Design is an interdisciplinary field of study, a discourse community, subsuming the arts, engineering, sciences, and humanities

  1. Cooper, A., Reimann, R., Cronin, D., & Noessel, C. (2014). About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design (4th ed.). Wiley.
  2. Krug, S. (2013). Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (3rd ed.). New Riders.
  3. Norman, D. (2013). The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition. Basic Books.
  4. Williams, R. (2014). Non-Designer’s Design Book (4th ed.). Peachpit Press.