I’ve been trying to understand the difference between art and design for years now. I’m not sure why it seemed important to me to parse these two things, but it did. It probably has something to do with going from art to design and having attended and taught at both art schools and design schools. But finally a few days ago during a sleepless night in a hostel in British Columbia, something occurred to me and I think I can make a statement that while it isn’t perfect, at least puts a stake in the murky ground that’s bothered me for a while. Design is a explicit proposition for an intended future object, state, or situation; art has no obligation to any intended outcome. If there’s no intended situation in your design, then it’s not doing the thing that we need design to do, which is to propose new situations. Nothing is wrong with not proposing a desired situation but a design which doesn’t propose a desired situation is doing something which shouldn’t be judged as design. It might be art, it might be something else but it’s important because the things that aren’t really design are frequently conflated with design. There are schools of art and design, there are innumerable artists who work in design and designers who occasionally make art, museums show the two side by side, popular culture does little to separate them, they live very near one another. But that intended outcome is important because it’s a metric by which we can judge designs: is the thing that this design purports to do a worthwhile thing to do? How well does it do the thing that it purports to do? Does it have other side effects that are at odds with the thing which it purports to do? Because art can be judged on nearly any number of metrics whereas design can only be judged on one: what does it do? And there’s a couple of “what does it do” metrics on which it should be judged and they’re all quite different.

The timeline of design

A design is essentially an idea of how something can work. I assemble a description of some thing and the way that someone interfaces with that thing. For “thing” it’s probably easier if we think pretty broadly. Imagine a complicated system and imagine a fork and imagine a flyer and now imagine the category that can contain all of those neatly. That’s what a thing is because in this scenario we’re just interested in what designing means and that really means shaping and ordering the interface-able parts of something. That’s a menu and the controls of an airplane and that’s the tines of a fork. In designing, as a designer, I’m going to make some assumptions about how that thing will be understood and how it will fit into the world and what will be required to bring that thing into the world but mostly I’m going to focus on aspects of the thing. E.g. what’s my proposition for how it works and what it looks like and what it’s made of and how I experience it. Fuzzy in scope but specific in chronology in that this is the part of designing that happens before anything gets made. So this “what does it do?” is “what do I intend for it to do?”.

A design makes assumptions about production, namely that someone or something else will be doing the production. If I draw a picture of a quilt and then make the quilt, I am crafting. If I draw a picture of a quilt and send that picture to a factory in Bangladesh, I’m designing. A design is a pattern that can be followed by a laborer, even an semi-unskilled one, or a machine. This exported labor is part of the popularization and spread of design: in this era we spend a remarkable amount of time having other people or things do tasks for us. That out-sourcing of labor, the automation of the means of production, is what gives design its power. I’m making something for a means of production that can be taken and reproduced ad infinitum. It’s fundamentally the creative application of abstracted industry. So this “what does it do?” is “what does it require to be brought into existence?” My design might require that a factory use harmful processes or that a service gather user data without their permission. These aren’t what we typically think of as the design but they are a part of the quality of the design, of the thing itself.

Design always proposes a situation in a potential future and, if it’s implemented, creates a situation in an actual future. So part of designing a thing is designing the future into which it slots. That may be a very near future or it may be a rather distant one but the quality and fidelity of the future, the likelihood of it ever coming to pass, are all elements of the doing of that design. Objects cannot be divorced from the culture, both the material culture and the human culture, in which they exist. If you want to create a thing you should ask what culture that thing will actually require. The quality of your propositional future is a part of the quality of your design because creating a thing creates the possibility of the world in which that thing exists. So with a bit of a stretch of the English language, another “what does it do?” is “what does this thing do to the future to make it the future in which this thing exists?”

As an adjacent quality to the previous one, we also can see that no design exists in the present; all design exists in a future and that future may not be kind to it at all. Or that future may use it in ways which are utterly baffling or completely at odds with the original vision or even the ethics of the original design. The intended future and the actual future are often not the same future; we mean for a thing to exist in a world where it will be valued and understood and utilized and be used as we intended it to be used. But that’s not always true. Things are slotted into futures which could not be predicted, used in ways that couldn’t be anticipated, understood in ways that seem alien. Facebook probably never meant to be a tool for sowing divisiveness and swinging elections, but it is. People have seen the design of the system and the way that other people interpret the design of the system and interpreted that design in a way that the initial creators of the design probably didn’t anticipate. But that’s still the design; what a thing does is what it was designed to do because that’s what the design is: it’s how the qualities of a thing can be put to use. So another “what does it do?” is “what does it do in the world in which it actually exists?”

These four things combined make for a powerful axiom about design and that is that the design is not simply the thing. The design is how a thing is understood at a moment in time. And there’s a fork in there and it’s an interesting fork to choose a side to take, because one side of the fork is what we think of as the design, the moment where I intend, and on the other side of the fork is what the design does in the world. To everyone other than designers, design is what a thing does, even if it’s not at all what was intended. The more you look at the decisions that go into how anything is used, an object, a system, a website, a service, the more you’ll see that everything has innumerable steps in which something is encountered and interpreted and everyone doing that encountering and interpreting is engaging the design.

The least important of the four is the first, the design intent itself. What the designer thinks is the most important thing is actually the least important to the object itself. The latter three are of paramount importance in how we should actually judge design and understand design. The processes that a thing requires to built, the world that an intention requires to be realized, and the way that a thing is encountered in the world is all far more important than the intention of the thing itself. Designing something is both predictive and generative: tell me how a thing will appear to another person and what they will do with it and tell me how you will make that happen. You’ve got to anticipate an awful lot of things and bear responsibility for an awful lot of things. I do realize that I’m asking an awful lot of people who wish to design something. It isn’t sufficient to CAD or use Photoshop or wireframe or create a flow diagram or paper a wall with post-its. Design requires, in addition to the technical tools which allow us to express a design intent, a future archaeology in which we understand a future society via its objects. Design is how things will be made, will be understood, and what they will require of the world. It’s a lot of walking down hypothetical alleys to shine a light at the end of them and see where they lead. As my friend and collaborator Simone Rebaudengo once said to our students: “Design process isn’t complicated, it’s really just logic. You just ask ‘and then what happens?’ again and again until you can’t answer any more, and then you go back to the present and start asking again.”

If you are wiling to engage with this expanded definition of designing things, of asking “and then what happens?”, there’s actually an incredible power afforded to design: to make a situation or state possible simply by actually proposing the possibility of that situation in a coherent and comprehensible fashion. It’s in asking design to shoulder all these extra responsibilities that imagination, understanding, politics, and ethics, can all be brought into the design process in meaningful and important ways. So if all those things can be brought into design then their absence is an indication of the quality of the design.