"What is Design?": A Personal Note

I could look into a lot of books, quote many famous artists/designers and attempt to give several definitions/answers of this question like many others before me but that is not the intention of this post. That will require a lot of research, references and I might still be very far away from reaching a suitable definition. This post is a personal take on the idea of design as a word, as a profession and as a process, not in any particular order. Hence, this post will be subject to a lot of changes in the future.

Design practices are not new to us in the sense that they have been a part of our everyday life even before we learn to remember, before we realise. Psychologists like Jean Piaget might say that we are n­­­­ot just designing our memories: constantly involved in the iterative process of building mental framework and refining ‘brain maps’ (e.g. learning new names), but also in a more philosophical sense, designing our future in the process.

This is not just true for an individual but also true for a community. In fact, I believe that a big part of designing is learning self-reflection, self-independence and most importantly, ‘self-empathy’ in a bigger picture. It is very easy to say someone “to put themselves in someone else’s shoes”, but to do it requires mammoth amount of effort. In a way, I would say that ‘design thinkers travel through several lives in course of their own lifetime’. To have this vision, this ‘divya drishti’ as mentioned in Bhagavad Gita, is a boon that not just Arjun, but everyone has been bestowed upon (unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, human beings have the capacity to logically interpret their surroundings and hence consciously change their future). But to have this power to change the real world, to enhance the quality of other’s life is not only a taxing or a challenging job, but also a great responsibility. It might as well be called a very big test of our character.

How do we envision our future? Many of us will categorise this opinion as a Humanistic Approach to Design, but I would disagree. Our future cannot, or in an optimistic sense, SHOULD NOT just be limited to humans. Being a social species, our fates, our happiness or sadness depends quite extensively on the fate of our communities, our nations and our environment. And this logic binds man and nature into a single cosmos. Hence, design can also be defined as the way in which we attempt to realize our desired changes (good or bad, moral or immoral) from the context of our envisioned world. Hence, it encompasses not just industrial design but also architecture, services and experience design. It is thus, prudent to observe it as an essential responsibility of everyone (and not just of the designer community). Because in not doing so, we apparently distance ourselves from the consequences of our actions. And we cannot afford to be that careless.

Throughout the course of human history, design has played the most important role in the growth of a civilization; be it natural or human-made. Great civilizations have emerged where topography and climate has favored agricultural growth or military prowess. Initially, what started as the principles for construction of huge pyramids has now trickled down to be applied in the manufacturing of a Japanese toothpick. 

With the advent of technology, human beings for the first time have the power to shape their world, to consciously avoid the harmful and inevitable consequences of our bad decisions. This task requires a lot of patience, sacrifice and compassion as we ourselves might not be able to relish the fruits of our good decisions or as the famous Greek proverb goes “A society grows when old man plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in”.