What is “design”, and how design thinking sparks the best in us

What is design

If you ask me what I do, I’ll tell you I’m an advertiser. If you ask me what I am, I’m going to say I’m a designer. The two concepts, to me, are fundamentally different.

The concept of “advertising” carries with it all the things the ad industry has been accused of in the last century: ruthless capitalism, profit, greed, cheats and lies. Sexist ads and absurd cigarette ads still make rounds on Facebook feeds every now and then. Times have changed for the ad industry, and now our creative minds are much more focused on doing good to society.

What advertising used to be

What advertising used to be

The ultimate goal of advertising, however, hasn’t changed. It is to sell. Even though it’s not as black and white as it was when TV commercials were so, the end is still the same. Except today there are much more ways to “sell”. It’s not just about hard sales. Today a lot of the value added by advertising is intangible. It’s brand value. There’s brand recognition, “brand love”, brand awareness and a number of other indicators that are used to measured an ad campaign’s success.

To reach its goal, advertisers uses adequately crafted messages, in specific media, to make sure a specific audience listens to what they want to say. In the crafting of the message comes all the creative power the ad industry musters.

Design is the tool to adequately craft those messages.

The definition of design can be very broad, and very removed from the marketplace. In design school, we spent some good 6 months discussing the very definition of “design” with teachers and peers. The discussions invariably ended up way more philosophical than I wished. Add to that the fact that there’s no accurate translation for the word “design” in Portuguese (I went to college in Brazil), then you get a class of design students that were not sure what they had gotten into.

Today I can tell you “design” can be defined in many ways – being it a term so broadly used: furniture design, graphic design, interface design… Each of these activities are fundamentally different, yet they are all “design”. Do all these activities really have something in common?

One thing, for me, stands out as being the heart of the definition of design: to optimize. “To design” is many things at different times, but it is always “to optimize” something. When a chair is designed, the designer will be looking to optimize functionality, or the efficiency in the industrial process, or the recyclability or the structural strength. When a poster is designed, the designer will be looking to optimize the readability, the visual efficiency, the amount of time the message needs to be understood. When an interface is designed, the designer will be looking to optimize the human interaction with a machine, or the amount of time one needs to execute a given action.

Going back to advertising, when an ad is designed, its designer optimizes the message. To fit the time, to relate to the target, to meet legal requirements.

To design is to optimize. To make better, more efficient. To produce more, with less resources. To say more, with less words. To do more, in less time. Design is the birthplace of creativity.

That’s what fascinates me and that’s the driving force behind all my creativity.

As a designer, I approach life and work with a curious, problem-solving attitude. I try to find the best way to do things. If a good way can’t be found, I’ll create a new way. A more efficient way. A way that saves time. Or money. A way that works better.

As long as we’re looking for a better way to do things, we’ll never stop being creative.

Share you opinion in the comments. If you agree, or not. Or if you have another idea for what design is.

What do you think?