Design and You
This page is intended to offer you (a prospective design student) a feel for the breadth and power of design within your world. It is a brief introduction to the different types of design, the different things designers do and the different ways you could pursue design. We encourage you to keep in mind the following information as you pick classes in school, choose a college or seek employment in the career of your choice. This article was written for IDSA by Scott Stropkay, co-founder of the Boston-based design consultancy, Essential.
Design is a BIG Category
The first thing to know about design is that it’s a huge category with lots of definitions.
There are many ways to organize design. Organizing it by design jobs is the way we have framed it here. It’s not perfect, but it is a good starting place:
- The people who design things like cars, bikes, furniture, tools and equipment, computers, medical devices, housewares, toys – all the stuff you see in stores, all the stuff people use at home and work every day, the things that most people think just occur somehow. The people who design these things are generally called industrial designers (sometimes referred to as I.D.) or product designers – that’s what most of this IDSA website is about.
- The people who design all the clothes and fabrics you see in stores. They are generally called fashion designers or textile designers. The trends they establish are driven to the masses from the big fashion design cities in the world like New York, Paris, London, Los Angeles, Milan and others. When fashion meets high-performance function like in athletic shoes, protective sportswear, backpacks or wearable electronics, fashion designers generally work together with industrial designers to do more comprehensive work.
- The people who design the spaces and places you live in, work in, eat in and play in. Urban planners design cities and big development projects. Landscape architects design outdoor environments like neighborhoods and parks. Architects design buildings of all types, and interior designers design the look and feel and details of spaces inside the buildings usually in collaboration with architects. Here again you may find industrial designers working on custom furniture or lighting for these spaces.
- The people who design all the graphics you see in websites, computer apps, magazines, books, packaging, signs, etc. They are called graphic designers, communication designers and interaction designers. The basic (although not always accurate) distinction between graphic designers and industrial designers is the number of dimensions they work in. Graphic designers typically work in two-dimensions on printed materials and computer GUI’s (graphical user interfaces), compared to industrial designers who tend to work in three-dimensions, giving form to objects you touch or hold or operate, including packaging that’s molded or formed in plastic or other materials.
- The people who design service experiences for other people, like the way you experience a ride in a theme park, or the way you experience a hospital emergency room, or the way an online store helps you compare options, rate favorites, make purchases and check-out. These people are called service designers or user experience (UX) designers. Sometimes industrial designers and interaction designers find themselves evolving into service designers or user experience designers depending on the type of problems they like working on.
There are also all kinds of people who do design as part of a role or job that has a different name. For instance, all engineers design – design is a part of their process. Most business people design too. They design research objectives, brainstorm new ideas, design strategies and plans, and contribute to teams that include the design specialists listed above. Great design usually happens in teams, so no matter what you end up doing in your life, it’s smart to be tuned into design, to understand the design process and how to use it in your professional life to make things more meaningful for users.
What Designers Do
The second thing to know about design is - what designers do.
Over time, designers develop the unique capacity to effectively use creative and analytical processes to solve different kinds of problems in new ways. They use the imaginative parts of their brains to envision solutions no one has thought of before, and they use the systematic parts of their brains to analyze and refine their ideas to make them better and better. Driven by a strong desire to innovate, designers engage in a continuous creative problem solving cycle of “learn, think, do.”
Looking at what a designer does from a process perspective, designers:
- Help define the problem they are solving by researching and learning about the people who use the product or service, their needs and goals.
- Brainstorm and create lots of possible ways to solve the problem.
- Sketch, illustrate, diagram or find some other way to communicate their ideas visually (as well as verbally).
- Build prototypes to see if their ideas work; sometimes they are rough models made from stuff laying around the house or office; sometimes they are nice graphics printed from your computer; sometimes they are storyboards like in comic books – describing the way something happens; sometimes they are computer models or animations; and sometimes they are fancy hand-built or machine-built models.
- Test their ideas with the people the design is meant to serve to see if they like it and to see if they can find ways to improve it.
- Refine their design until it is ready to develop further, sometimes working with engineering specialists, manufacturing specialists or business specialists.
Some of these terms or practices may be unfamiliar or seem difficult to imagine yourself doing right now, but it’s really important to remember that design is a process that you learn over time. And like with most things; the more you practice, the better you get.
Should Design be your Focus?
The third thing to know about design is that you can make design the main thing you do, or you can make it something you do as part of another job.
If you want to pursue a design career, that’s great. Talk to your family, friends, people in the design area you like, collect websites that showcase the kind of design that excites you, get to know as much about it as you can. If, on the other hand, you are more interested in engineering, business, government or medicine, but still like design, you can participate in the design parts of those jobs. To expand on the idea of design; think of it as a process to solve problems; the more you know about design and the design process, the better you will be at solving problems in the areas you really care about.
Here are some questions to think about. They might help you decide if you want to choose “designer” as the main way you define what you do to make a living.
- Are you curious about a lot of different things, different subjects and different people? Do you wonder why things are the way they are?
- Do you like solving problems; making things better or easier – like making your school projects better, writing more clearly, organizing things around you so they make better sense to you?
- Do you see things in your world that you’d like to see fixed – like the way the textbooks are written, or the way buses or cars work or feel? Do you ever wonder why people put up with certain inconveniences when you can see a better way?
- Do you like making things – either in the computer or with your hands? Are your school projects more elaborate than most? Do you ever create environments in virtual reality programs? Do you like making projects, creating art, building forts, making clothes or jewelry or building models of ideas you have?
- Do you find that it’s sometimes much easier to share your ideas by drawing them or diagramming them? Do you like drawing and making posters or doing graphics to make your ideas richer?
If you answered yes to most of those questions – a design focus might be right for you. If you are unsure, don’t worry – pursue other interests, just keep an eye open for ways to keep the creative parts of your brain engaged. The more you use both imaginative and systematic parts of your brain, the better balanced you will be. While you are in school, regardless of direction, learn how to solve problems in creative ways, tap into your analytical mind when making key decisions, communicate from all points of view, and collaborate in productive in the midst of digging deep into meaningful problems.
Design and Your Child: A Note for Parents
The article above was written to introduce design to kids and young adults who aren’t very familiar with its breadth and depth. Many kids don’t realize that there are a number of ways they can put their creative interests to great use – either as a professional focus or as secondary area of interest that can inform other activities or careers they may want to pursue. Of course design as we defined it above is only one of many creative pursuits that may interest your child. Performing arts like music and theatre, fine arts like painting and sculpture and media arts like interactive media and film are other well-known creative pursuits.
Unlike some creative pursuits that focus on personal expression, designers work collaboratively with multi-disciplined teams to solve various functional and aesthetic problems. Designers are trained to use design thinking and learning methods as process tools to address new situations in new ways. Designers use creative processes to invent possible solutions; they also use analytical processes to evaluate alternate solutions, prototype them, refine them and bring these solutions to market. Again, it’s usually with people from other professional disciplines.
Much has been written about the importance of creative problem solving skills as a new learning imperative. Where the business headline may change over time, the need for creative problem solvers is more important today than ever. The bottom line is—our world is changing at a rate that guarantees your child will be confronted by problems that will require creative solutions. Design thinking and learning skills are valuable to everyone.
We appreciate that encouraging your child to pursue design may seem risky, and you are right to some degree. Not everyone ends up being a great designer. Similarly, not everyone ends up a top lawyer, top doctor, top accountant or whatever profession seems to align with their aspirations.
Regardless of discipline, the more your son/daughter masters “21st Century Learning Skills,” the better prepared they will be for college and a career in today’s world.
The wonderful news about design as an educational pursuit is: what your child learns, thinks, does – the approach, the processes, the skills, etc. – are all directly applicable to virtually all other professions. Some of the greatest business people, public servants, medical professionals and others are great at what they do because of their appreciation and aptitude for design.
We encourage you to learn more about design by navigating around this site and by looking into the professional societies for other design disciplines.
Here are some links on this site that will provide you with further depth and understanding of Industrial Design as a profession and how to get started in Industrial Design.
- List of ID Schools in the US.
- idsa.org education tab - The section for parents and the section for students contains helpful information to get started with a career in Industrial Design.
- IDEA Galleries - IDSA's International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) competition occurs every year, and the galleries give a great overview of the kinds of products and services industrial designers design.
- 100 Years of Design - This section gives an overview of the short, but rich history of the profession.