What I talk about when I talk about design

“Design” is a big fuzzy word that means a lot of things to a lot of people. Sometimes when I introduce myself as a “designer”, people look skeptically at my jeans and sneakers and ask when my next runway show is scheduled. If I clarify that I’m a “product designer”, people immediately start telling me about their new cookware from Target–or more recently, their iPhone. And if I further specify that I mostly design websites, then I get “can you fix my computer?” Regardless, I’m always asked to produce the flyer for their next bake sale.

Talking about “design” is challenging because everyone interprets it differently–even among professional designers. Different fields and industries think about design in their own ways for their own reasons. Depending on the situation, the word “design” can even be a noun or a verb. I’m a big believer in the power of precise language, so I took some time to clarify what I’m talking about when I talk about “design”.

My favorite overall definition of “design” is a recent one from Rebekah Cox: “[a] design is a set of decisions about a product”. It gets to the important point that what matters is what the entire product team ends up agreeing to do. Steve Jobs goes further: “Design is how it works”.

Both of these definitions expand the understanding of design beyond the typical “making things pretty”, which is great. But they go so broad that they’re almost useless in practice. Great, design is a set of decisions. So who makes those decisions? How will you go about it? How can you become better at it? To make progress, you need to go at least one level further, and talk about the types of decisions you’re making, who makes them, and what activities can help you do that.

So when I talk about design, I try to specify which of a few distinct fields–or sets of decisions–I’m referring to: concept design, visual design, interaction design, engineering design, or business design. Together, decisions in these areas make up “the design” of a product, service, or experience.


Here’s how I define those subareas of design:

A concept design expresses the core ideas behind a product, especially what makes it valuable to people. Creating a concept design often involves discovery research, brainstorming, and concept visualization. I use concept design techniques to quickly explore a number of different opportunities for a product, expecting that 95% will be scrapped. Concept designs are thus usually created using lightweight techniques, including writing, sketching, and role-playing, and include descriptions of key benefits, possible product taglines, and quick visualizations of unique features.

But while these designs are lightweight and high-level, I believe they are the most important step in the product design process. It’s absolutely crucial to get the team agreed on the overall product direction and what it’s bringing to the world, and the only way to do that is with a very simple and clear definition–a concept design. This is the area that I’ve spent most of my time and energy working on for the past 3 years, and the part of the design process I most enjoy.

I’ve found the most success when each person on a diverse team–”designers”, engineers, businesspeople–creates and proposes their own concept designs. But instead of then trying to consolidate and unify them, I think it’s important to choose a single concept and rally behind it. Sometimes that concept is created by a professional designer; other times it’s an engineer or businessperson with a clear insight. It may take several iterations before there is a single concept with sufficient support from the team. But since focus is the goal of concept design, choosing a single target is essential.

(Sometimes the term “concept design” is used to describe a highly-polished speculative or futuristic depiction of a product or service. While I also use that technique, I refer to those artifacts as “product visions” and try to reserve the term “concept design” for the description of the core ideas behind a product proposal, which usually includes more information and less flash.)

Interaction design is the plan for how people interact with a product or service, focusing on the practical and mechanical aspects of the experience. It includes designing the touchpoints, interfaces, and relationships between people and the product. For software, this is usually centered around a digital interface, but as devices get smaller and more diverse it is becoming less about the direct product interaction and more about the overall experience. And of course interactions aren’t limited to electronic products–I consider the use of physical products, ergonomic issues, and (designed) interactions with other people also part of the interaction design field.

Visual design is how something looks. It’s a bit arbitrary to separate out the visual parts of an interaction from the tactile, but in my experience they involve different skills and are experienced uniquely. Visual design involves color, contrast, shape, pattern, texture, and more. I also consider movement and transformation as increasingly important visual design techniques. Despite the common understanding of design as “making things pretty”–a very visual criteria–this is not my strength, and something I’m working to improve as the bar for visual experiences in technology is continuously raised.

(This might be better called “aesthetic design”, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about being an “aesthetic designer” or doing aesthetic design work, and people who call themselves “visual designers” tend to do everything I’ve mentioned quite well.)

Engineering design is how something will be built and manufactured. Despite its differences from the previous fields, in some technically-focused industries this is the main definition of design. I consider engineering as a design field because technical insights can both constrain and empower the other design decisions. With only a few exceptions, a great design depends on great engineering decisions. Jonathan Ive, for example, regularly cites engineering decisions in his explanation of Apple product design.

As most technologies are highly advanced, engineering design is generally led by professional engineers. Personally, I know just enough technical things to be dangerous, and try to work with design engineers who are skilled at translating technical insights into product ideas.

Business design is the set of decisions about how a product will be a sustainable business. To be fair, I’ve only ever heard this used by the design thinking cabal, so it may be a made-up term. Still, as business decisions, like engineering ones, influence what you can and can’t do in the other design fields, it’s important to consider them as part of your design process.

In the best case, a creative business insight can enable new types of interaction possibilities, like the work IDEO did with Air New Zealand to realize the “SkyCouch” seats which are both a better experience for fliers and profitable for the airline.


The “design”, then, is the union of all these decisions for a given product or service. Whether or not you make each decision consciously, they all influence how your product is perceived and used. And if you do consider each of these fields in your design process, you’re more likely to come up with a creative, unique, robust, and sustainable solution.

As a professional designer, I try to incorporate all of these fields, and specialists in each area, in the design process for projects. My best design experiences (and outcomes) were collaborations with experts in engineering, visual design, and business, creating focused concepts that we were all excited about. It’s as much a social challenge as a mechanical one, requiring precisely-timed and -planned activities and mutual trust.

Design is a set of decisions, and “how it works”, and it is also how you get there. So that’s what I talk about when I talk about design.


p.s. What I’m not talking about

“User experience” usually refers to someone’s entire experience with a product or service, including what they do and how they feel. This is mostly out of your hands, but it can of course be influenced by the design. As a practical distinction, I believe that you evaluate the user experience, and design the product to encourage certain outcomes. I also dislike the dehumanizing word “user”, so I try to be more precise in my speaking and writing.

“Industrial design”, a term typically used with physical products only, combines visual design and physical interaction design, so I usually talk about those instead. I don’t really like the term itself either, as it focuses too strongly on business (“industry”) uses.