Over the last few years, design is increasingly seen as a tool for creating change. Through the work of many, including thought leaders such as Roger Martin and Tim Brown, design has become a key process and way of thinking that transcends disciplines and offers a roadmap for navigating and creating solutions. To both the like and dislike of many, business leaders, designers and non-designers continue to discuss design-thinking as the new pathway to innovation. Although design-thinking doesn't replace good design, as Core77 columnist Helen Walters recently articulated, we do see a broader and broader scope of how the term "design" is being described. The expanding notion of design is captured by Core77's upcoming design awards, which includes both traditional categories—web, interaction, graphic, interiors, transportation, services design—and emerging ones, such as research and strategy, social impact and design education. These conversations, books, articles, etc. collectively beg the question: "What is design?"
This is actually one of my favorite questions. I don't know about the rest of you, but I find the expanding definition of design terribly exciting. I used to say, "I don't call myself a designer unless you change the definition of design." When I was in school, Industrial Design was, for the most part, still confined to cereal boxes and toasters, but I knew that design, as a process and way of problem-solving, was applicable to far more than this. Don't get me wrong, toasters and cereal boxes are well needed and well-designed ones add delight and productivity for millions, but I couldn't help but to feel in my gut that design could be, would be and was, something more. So it is with great relief that those I admire started saying, "Yes, design is more. It's design with a big 'D.'"
However, those around me still don't necessarily "get it." When I tell someone I'm a designer, they either ask me to design them a website, or once I explain industrial design, they only half-jokingly ask me to design them an alarm clock. As a design educator, I see the design of a product or service as a means to learning the design process. If I'm going to be really honest with myself, I'm more interested in how a student learns to think than how good their renderings or prototypes end up. To impart this knowledge, I have to actually describe what design is in a way that encompasses the broader spectrum of how it is being discussed in the design world. One explanatory framework I have been using that seems to resonate with people is what I call the "Dimensions of Design." It goes a little something like this:
2D: lives in the x-y axis including graphic design and images
3D: lives in the x-y-z axis with products
4D: when you add the human element you get systems, services, and experiences
5D: and when you apply this over time, you get the 5th dimension of strategy
Since it also helps to have visuals and examples, the below diagram of the design dimensions also incorporates an example using Adidas where the 4th dimension is an interactive store using Intel Technology and the 5th dimension is their long-term strategy which uses design thinking to articulate the brand's development over time.
This description is generally followed by a discussion on the design process and how it connects these dimensions. But it brings me great delight to see my non-profit community partners scribbling notes as I describe this, nodding their heads and seeing a little light bulb go off—they made a mental leap in understanding what design is and what exactly I am talking to them about. Of course, I'm sure we could break this model down and debate what goes in what dimension and spend hours discussing this, but the main point is that this framework helps people understand the broader scope of what design is in less than five minutes.
Now you might be asking yourself, "Why is it is so important for us to describe design to those who don't already get it?" Well, as Tim Brown recently argued, "Design may have its greatest impact when it's taken out of the hands of designers and put into the hands of everyone." To rise to Brown's challenge, we need to have the tools to describe design. We can continue to raise the curtain and democratize design by simply articulating what design is. My hope is that the "Dimensions of Design" is a small step in this direction.
Sami Nerenberg is a design lecturer at Northwestern University and the Chief Expansion Officer of Design for America, which trains interdisciplinary students in the design process to create local and social change in partnership with their communities. She previously taught at Pratt Institute and her alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design. She would like to thank Sarah Malin from the 3rd Teacher and Danny Alexander from IDEO for their invaluable help in editing and being continual sounding boards as well as Jeanne Olson for her thought-provoking discussions. Twitter: @saminerenberg @design4america
Sami Nerenberg, Core77 friend and design educator will be speaking at the upcoming 2011 Northeast IDSA Conference hosted at RISD April 8-9 about Design for America, a non-profit organization which trains interdisciplinary students in the design process to create local and social change in partnership with their communities. Stay-tuned as DfA announces the opening of their application process to attend this summer's one-week Design Leadership Institute!
BONUS: IDSA Northeast is offering a group discount to Core77 readers—10% if you can get a group of 5 people to register together. But you must call IDSA to get the discount Just call Katie Fleger, manager of member relations, at 703.707.6000 ext. 112 with any questions or to register, or call Jill Richardson, membership coordinator at 703-707-6000 ext. 118 and she will get you registered.