Design is a powerful mode of communication, a form of visual language, a semiotic system—& more. Learn about 7 design definitions so you can use design principles to develop texts, products, and services. Knowledge of design principles and processes can empower you to communicate clearly and persuasively.    
image depicting Facebook at a panopticon

The design of Facebook and other social platforms is intended to maximize value for shareholders. "Facebook as imagined by Jeremy Bentham: The Panopticon of Modern Age" by iLifeinicity C BY 2.0

image depicting Facebook at a panopticon

What is Design?

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

More broadly, it is conceived of as

  1. A signifier of identity
  2. a way of thinking, a method for developing applications, products, and services
  3. a semiotic process, a form of visual language
  4. a catechism, a set of assumptions
  5. a social construct
  6. a curriculum, a sequence of topics
  7. a subject of study, an academic discipline.

Why Does Design Matter?

Design is a complex, somewhat opaque concept that means different things to different users and discourse communities.

  • For engineers, the term design may be used synonymously with sketch, draft, or create or with the act of making a plan for the manufacture of a product.
  • For graphic artists, design may refer to the act of writing copy, editing photographs, and designing data visualizations by writing sequel server queries.
  • For production designers on a movie set, design may be the props, costumes, graphics used for a particular scene in a movie.
  • For writers, design is reflected in the writer’s choice of media, design elements and adherence to or departure from design principles as well as linguistic elements (Style, especially Diction, Tone).

7 Design Definitions

1. 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 ]

2. 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.

3. A Semiotic Process, a Form of Visual Language

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

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

Some Great Books on Design

  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.