Defining design (Part I)

Defining the common aspects of design

It might be redundant to state that – except in pristine nature – we are surrounded by the outcome of design. So, if design is ‘the human capacity to shape and make our environment’ (Heskett, 2002, p.5), one cannot avoid wondering how can design and the designer accommodate to such a variety of requirements. Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus, asserted – in what has become a very famous quote in the field of design – that architects (i.e. architectural designers) construct ‘from the spoon to the city’. After reading this statement, one cannot avoid wondering how can design afford such a variety of domains and how the activities of designing a bridge or designing a pen can be considered to be intrinsically the same activity. I shall try to probe into these issues, even though the questions will probably remain partially unanswered.

Design comprises several disciplines: product, interior, graphic, fashion… just to name a few. Within each of these disciplines there are sub-disciplines or specialisations: within graphic design one can find editorial design, information design, branding, etcetera. Some sub-disciplines are related or are even shared by two disciplines such as packaging, which can be considered product or graphic design or both; or interior lighting design, which can be considered product or interior design or both. Then, does it make sense to talk about design as a unique activity? Or, is it reasonable to consider common aspects of design such as design decision making or design cognition when designers are facing and tackling problems so apart from one another as the design of toothbrushes and car dashboards?

Lawson (2006, p.9) asserts that ‘we must be cautious […] in assuming that all design fields can be considered to share common ground’. But then he posits a notion with tremendous implications: ‘what is certain is that design is a distinctive mental activity’. Here Lawson asserts that design as a mental activity is different from the rest. Nigel Cross goes further and refers to designerly ways of knowing when positing the distinctiveness of design activity and a common cognitive approach among designers (Cross, 2007b, 2011). Designerly can be defined as: ‘the deep, underlying patterns of how designers think and act’ (Cross, 2007a, p.11).

Design methodology tries to be domain-independent (Dorst, 1997; Lawson, 2006), but a domain-agnostic design methodology makes sense if, and only if, designers share cognitive features regarding their approach to design. If there is not such a thing as a designerly way of knowing, pursuing a domain-independent design methodology shall remain a chimera.


CROSS, N. (2007a) Designerly Ways of Knowing, Basel: Birkhäuser.

CROSS, N. (2007b) ‘Forty years of design research’, Design Research Quarterly, 1(2), 3-5.

CROSS, N. (2011) Design thinking, Oxford: Berg.

DORST, K. (1997) Describing Design: A comparison of paradigms, Doctoral thesis, Tecnische Universiteit Delft.

HESKETT, J. (2002) Design: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

LAWSON, B. (2006) How designers think: the design process demystified, 4th edn, Oxford: Architectural Press.


Read Defining Design (Part II)

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