Has anyone ever asked what you do as a designer...and you struggled to explain it well?

Have you worked with people who don't seem to understand what you do, and inherently distrust your work?

Do you sometimes feel lost in the weeds of design and lose confidence your abilities as a designer?

Me too. In fact, this is what's lead me to write this the work behind this article. I'm going to attempt to provide a simple definition of design that will improve anyone's understanding of and confidence in design, what it is, and how it works

When we say "Design"

First of all let's look at a few ways we use the word:

  • A thing that's created, like an artifact or a set of specifications: "Did you bring the design?"
  • An expression of intent: "Well, it was designed to…"
  • A systematic, reproducible process that generates innovation: "Design thinking" or "Design process"

These are just a few examples of how we talk about design. They all good in some form or fashion, but individually, they only capture a part of what makes up design. They don’t capture the fullness that makes the discipline of design so powerful and amazing..

A Multi-Industry View

There is one more gotcha that's common among the view of design. We tend to limit our view of design to a specific industry, or scope our understanding of design to specific skillsets or industries. Design is expressed in many different specialties and industries. Design is cross-industry.

Here is a quote from an article that was posted by popular design tool (I won't way which one because I don't want to harm their legitimacy):

“…it’s safe to say that design is the arrangement of visual elements that aims to solve a real-world problem.”

This definition is getting close to the goodness and the power of design, but it suffers from being too narrow. By this definition, anything that that doesn't arrange visual elements…isn't design.

So, that leaves all kinds of industries out in the cold. Here's just a quick list of some of the kinds of designers out in the world.

  • Engineering Design
  • Industrial Design
  • Visual Design
  • UX Design (Web/Interactive Design)
  • Interior Design
  • Architectural Design
  • and the list goes on…

So then, when we think about design and how to define it, our definition has to work across a wide variety of industries. Ok…soo…what is design then?

The Definition

Here is a definition I've been working on for quite some time now. It's not perfect, but it's based on observation, research, and peer review. I'm sure it can be refined more over time, but it seems to hold up:

Design is a distinct method of reasoning that brings form to solutions that solve specific, but ambiguous problems.

Albeit a long string of works, we can break it down into six fundamental components that work together to form the entire definition:

A distinct…

It's unique and distinct from other problem solving methods like logical or analogical. It's very exploratory in nature, and doesn't function like other forms of reasoning. Design as a way of reasoning

…method of reasoning…

Design is a way of reasoning, of thinking. It's an expression of thought in an attempt to make sense of the problems we're targeting.

…that brings form…

Design is a very creation-heavy discipline. There's lots of sketching and prototyping of concepts and potential solutions. In fact, design is a critical discipline because it bridges the cognitive works of our minds and thoughts with the physical.

to solutions…

We're in it to win it, so solve it. We're solution heavy in our thinking. But the ideas and concepts we come up with aren't standing alone. They're directed at something.

…that solve specific…problems.

Design is always aimed at something. A pain, a problem, a goal. There's a target in our sights, and we've been brought in to help accomplish that goal.

…but ambiguous…

Gnarly and "wicked" problems…not a pursuit of truth, but of what 'fits' the problem. This is where the power of design really lands. And…why it comes last. Design can be applied to lots of problems, but it thrives in environments when there's not a single "right" answer. Whenever a problem can be resolved my multiple different things…that's when design shines.

So, design is a distinct method of reasoning that brings form to solutions that solve specific, but ambiguous problems.


Design is one of the most human activities that we do. Many times, we're doing design without even knowing it. When we're clear on what design and conscious of when we're doing it...we can be far more effective in our work.

I'm sure you have lots of questions like: How is it expressed across industries? What are the unique elements of design? Those are a topics for future articles already in the works.

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Further Reading

Discovering Design: Explorations in Design Studies
Affiliate Link: https://amzn.to/35JbtwB

Notes on the Synthesis of Form
Affiliate Link: https://amzn.to/39wg0U9

Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention
Affiliate Link: https://amzn.to/3ssxFoj

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