Reflections on Design: A Theory

Introduction/Personal background

What is the purpose of a design theory? To try to exhibit to others the reasons and methods you use to produce your work? To attempt to sway others to working and thinking the way you do? To share the secrets of your personal success so that others might experience it too? In endeavoring to write this paper, I am hesitant to speak in too many absolutes and to declare too strongly my preference for one mode of thinking or one technique over another for fear of becoming the stereotypical dieter or self-help enthusiast who, having found a way of living that is working for them becomes an evangelist believing that the rest of the world must adopt this way of life as well.

With that in mind, the following sections are presented as a contemplation on several aspects of design, such as what design is, what makes a good designer, what makes a good design, and how to become a designer. 

What is design?

My first thoughts focus on the word design. As a professional graphic designer with over 23 years of experience that word has been a fixture in my occupational life, although I never really put much effort into analyzing the implications calling myself a “designer” could have. I have always liked the term designer. I always favored that as a title as opposed to being called an artist. To me, designer seemed to be more of an active term—something that someone is doing rather than a state of being as artist may imply.

But design as a theory does not necessarily have to be in reference to creating art, or anything visual for that matter. The word design itself is both a verb and a noun. As a verb it is an action. As a noun it is an artifact. The term, design, is descriptive of both the beginning of an activity and the end product. Someone may engage in designing a brochure or a web site, and someone may also admire the printed brochure or online website design. If the end goal of establishing a theory of design is to, first, improve understanding and abilities in this discipline and, second, to help to teach others and help them to improve in their designing activities in their own lives, then it would be productive to consider both the verb and noun forms of the word so that I may be more deliberate in engaging in design to design. 

Bayazit used the term creativity methods in reference to the development of specific methods needed to allow teams of engineers to work on an American response to the Russian satellite, Sputnik (Bayazit, 2004, pp. 17-18). The intriguing part of creativity methods, to me, is that it focuses on the internal approach to a problem, and the creativity or imagination employed in designing a solution. The unique creativity of the designer influences the choices in design and how that design solves the problems encountered in the task at hand. According to Herbert Simon, “everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” (Simon, 1996, p. 111). This course of thinking unlocked my previous conception of design as being solely related to a tangible artifact created by an artist or engineer and placed it more into the psychological process of anyone who endeavors to solve a problem, whether that problem be scientific, psychological, organizational, engineered, artistic, or any other situation. 

Design is in the experience of the individual as they approach a problem, whether self-imposed or given to them by an outside source. The verb form of design is a mental process and activity of working through the issues, challenges, and constraints of the problem at hand.

What makes a good designer?

It may seem to be presumptuous to attempt to declare what it is that makes a good designer. Using a qualitative term such as “good” infers that I am on the threshold of presenting a list of qualifications, such as would be found in a job posting; and if someone were able to check of all the items they might be able to declare that they’ve arrived and need to try no more. What I will attempt in this section is to list out a few attributes that become lifelong pursuits, not destinations. As the hopeful designer begins working towards these qualities, I believe that they will start the journey towards excellence that will only continue to grow with practice and time. 

In my view, there are at least four characteristics or attributes that can help someone excel as in design activities. An optimal designer is one who has a keen imagination that is exercised in creating and manipulating worlds within their own mind. The optimal designer is an expert and connoisseur in their field, as well as in complementary disciplines. The optimal designer is one who has the ability to empathize with the people who will interact with what it is that they are designing. These four qualities, imagination, expertise, connoisseurship, and empathy are not a comprehensive list, but are a good starting point.


One of the greatest strengths of a designer is their ability to conceptualize and imagine a world or objects that either don’t exist or are an improvement on the status quo. The cultivation of imagination, however, can be tricky. 

Imagination shares a cyclical relationship with knowledge. The more we know about a subject, the more we are able to imagine alternative realities in relation to it. This may also be called creativity. Knowledge need not, and should not, be limited to the individual’s own professional domain, however. Schön wrote that “aspiring members of the linguistic community of design learn to detect multiple reference, distinguish particular meanings in context, and use multiple reference as an aid to vision across design domains. The designer’s repertoire of domains has a structure of priorities for attending to features of situations” (1983, p. 98). As a designer becomes well-versed in their own and as many other domains as possible, that knowledge will feed imagination and new visions will arise as solutions to problems they are presented with. 

Once imagination has been cultivated, the challenge becomes materializing what you imagine into the material world. The ability to have someone experience what you experience in your imagination is nirvana, or the holy grail that artists and designers struggle to attain their entire life. The challenge of design is taking what is conceived in the mind and executing it in reality. The ability for a design to be realized is impacted by numerous constraints that are imposed either by the designer’s own skill and imaginative limitations, or outside influences that govern the shape and form of the final artifact. A successful design (noun) is the one that is able to bridge the gap between the design (verb) and the creation with the greatest amount of fidelity. Since it is the activity of designing that requires the most skill and development to master, that is what the remainder of this paper will focus on. 

Expertise. Nelson and Stolterman wrote that “Becoming a designer is a process of integrating the development of the whole person — namely, mind, body, and spirit — with the development of professional expertise” (p. 214). The first step in bridging the gap between what we imagine and what we are able to create is expertise. Expertise means that we have advanced beyond the realm of the beginner and have habitualized techniques and procedures to the level that our foremost cognitive processes are available to solve problems and focus on realizing our vision. As Lawson and Dorst put it, expertise “releases cognitive effort enabling the [designer] to pay attention to the situation rather than the process” (2009, p. 92). 

For a designer to be fully creative within a problem, that designer must thoroughly understand on a fundamental level what the root of that problem is before they will be able to creatively develop a solution. Before the age of 3D graphics and visual effects, Stephen Spielberg needed to show a large shipwreck in the middle of the desert for his special edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1980). To create the illusion of the ship, a 10-foot-long model was created and filmed at a low angle with the actors hundreds of yards away. This “forced perspective” shot gave the illusion that the actors were very small next to the gigantic shipwreck. Spielberg’s expert knowledge of film, lenses, and 2-dimensional imagery made it possible for him to create this impressive shot without the use of a matte painting, which would have been the only other available option at the time since 3D visual effects weren’t yet possible. 

Figure 1. Image from Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Special Edition showing the shipwreck in the desert effect created through the use of a small model and forced perspective to make the people and helicopters look small next to the ship.

While a designer must have an expert knowledge of the tools and techniques they use, they will often need to work with other experts and technologists to accomplish their work. Often, though, staffing is limited, and a single designer must take on other responsibilities of the project they are working on. They may be a good designer, but they may also need to write some copy, review the content as a subject matter expert, or may need to program a website or e-learning module. The most effective designers will have an understanding and skill in the subject matter and technology from other domains as well. While their knowledge will not rival the experts, it must be present to become a useful tool in the hands of an effective designer.

Connoisseurship. Belland wrote that “being a connoisseur in any field allows one to cut through all the distracting trivial details and get to the heart of most matters” (1991, p. 24). Connoisseurship follows expertise. As we become intimately familiar with our domain and tools that we use to create, we also gain an appreciation for fine details. Being a connoisseur is a crucial attribute to have when confronted with problems to solve, especially if our task is to devise “courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones,” to quote Simon again. 

Incremental innovation, as discussed by Norman and Verganti (2013), relies on one’s ability to discern what may be flaws or inefficiencies in a system or artifact so that modifications may be made for improvement. This is done either through research or connoisseurship. Beland described how a connoisseur is able to “perceive the salient elements in any work…without the need for a great deal of data or formalistic modes of inquiry” (p. 27). A connoisseur can discriminate details from a subject matter that they are intimately familiar with and accurately assess where there are insufficiencies that can be improved on. If a designer is a connoisseur, they will be much more efficient in devising solutions to problems.

Empathy. The conversation about expertise and connoisseurship is not limited to technology and subject matter, but also has much to do with gaining these skills regarding people. “The proper study of mankind is the science of design, not only as the professional component of a technical education, but as a core discipline for every liberally educated person” (Simon, 1996, p. 138). Such an education leads one to a greater amount of empathy for those they are designing for. Geoffrey Broadbent said, “The designer has to start by analyzing human behavior, from which he could derive “quantities, qualities, and relationships” (As cited in Bayazit, p. 20). Behavioral scientists study humans so they may understand them better. This understanding forms empathetic connections between the designer and the people their designs will be inflicted on. 

The personal experience of the artist applies to a work of art is subjective to the perspective of the artist and leaves it open to interpretation of everyone who encounters it. Their interpretation of the work may likely be very different from the intention and view of the artist and could be just as valid. They may not see the logic in it and if they were able to exactly portray the spiritual paintings originating in their minds, the result would likely be very different. 

The design process is similar to what occurs when an artist is creating art except for one very important distinction: the final design must be able to be predictably interpreted uniformly by the largest audience possible. The design process is a mental one that is comprised of the creative, organizational, problem-solving processes that a designer engages in, but in that calculus, the audience must be factored in and the designer, as much as is in their power, must view the design from the audience’s perspective and make adjustments accordingly. How broad the subjective appeal of the objective output from the designer will determine where that work fits on the spectrum that spans from a personal, self-serving work of a fine artist, to an edifying product consumable by the general population. The more a designer is able to empathize with their audience, the more aligned to the audience’s needs their work will be. 

How do you become a designer?

The concept of the internal and personal nature of design identifies the complication encountered when discussing design as a third area of education that lies separate from science and the humanities as discussed by Nelson and Stolterman (2012) and advocated by Cross (1982). The complication lies in the process of design being an internal computation unique to designer and the lack of a pure design activity that is absent of content or context dictated by science or the arts/humanities. When designing, the designer considers the technology, tools, content, history, trends, possibilities, constraints, and multitudes of other considerations unique to the particular problem at hand, which is rarely if ever absent of some form of science- or humanity-related content or context. 

The best tool of a designer is a well-rounded education with the psychological permission to question current standards, artifacts, products, and practices in favor of discovering a new way to approach them. If there is to be an educational field regarding design as a discipline, I think the best start is identified by Simon when Cross quoted him as saying

Few engineers and composers… can carry on a mutually rewarding conversation about the content of each other’s professional work. What I am suggesting is that they can carry on such a conversation about design, can begin to perceive the common creative activity in which they are both engaged, and can begin to share their experiences of the creative, professional design process (Cross, 2001, p. 54).

It is in the exploration of the intuitive creative processes relative to disciplines that enlightenment regarding design and creativity can be achieved. 

But what sets a designer apart from people who engage in other activities. We don’t have to become evangelists of a certain methodology or technique to analyze how and why we do what we do. Especially if the goal is to be a little more deliberate in our efforts so that we can be more efficient, more insightful, and more successful.

As I continue to think about how to teach design, I am approaching a conclusion that design cannot be taught as science or math facts are. Design must be experienced. A designer learns design each time they live the life cycle of a design from conception to realization. A designer must know much about much. They need to know science, art, and history. They need to learn the subject matter of what they are designing and become somewhat of an expert. None of these things can be taught at one time and a formal education will not suffice. Design education is culminated in a life lived. Sure, there are best practices, methods, principles, techniques and technology that apply directly to design as a discipline, but education in those matters are only part of the equation. 

What makes good design?

Nelson and Stolterman wrote “To design is not to create things that make the world more reflective of the true. It is rather to create a world that has more meaning, that makes more sense” (Nelson & Stolterman, 2012, p. 122). Because of my past career, I find it difficult to look at everything that I am exposed to outside of the aspects of its aesthetic appeal, although I know that there are other cognitive processes that are engaged when someone participates in design practice. It is true that many who become instructional designers or e-learning developers are not necessarily artistically inclined or trained in graphic design, but there must be some attention and priority given to the aesthetic appeal of the materials they create because those materials become the artifacts that end-users will engage with emotionally and meaningfully. The emotional and meaningful response will be greatly impacted by the level of skill the designer applies to the aesthetics of the end product. 

Now, I understand that the designer may be working on a team of other craftspeople and artists who may be able to tackle the challenge of creating something aesthetically appealing, but without at least a cursory understanding of visual design principles, a lack of aesthetic communication may result in unexpected results. Before something can be designed, a thorough understanding of the world, form, materials, and media the final product will likely take shape in must be understood. If the designers wait until the implementation phase before exploring and allowing for those constraints, the project could fail or be delayed. Similarly, the artist tasked with beautifying a product must not be ignorant to the instructional content and intended outcomes of the product they are working on. The craftsperson must understand the design thoroughly in order to effectively implement it. It’s harder when blueprints are handed over to production for implementation when the artist doesn’t understand the “why” of what they are doing. Worse, it may result in missed opportunities where the artist may have been able to offer valuable suggestions that would have improved the overall project. As Nelson and Stolterman noted, “the final production of a design should not be separated from its conceptual designing” (2004, p. 174).

These aesthetic aspects of design can have a large impact on the “evil” and “splendor” of design in both positive and negative ways. A designer with malevolent intents may reach unsuspecting victims with an appealing design, or conversely, a socially beneficial and enlarging product or program may never reach its potential in audience because it lacks cosmetic appeal. The responsibility for seeing to these aspects of the design process rests solely on the shoulders of the designer in charge. Free will dictates that individuals will decide to produce items with nefarious purposes. For this reason, the cultivation of “complete designers” is highly desirable. A complete designer is one who has the ability to create “relations and connections, with balance and the other aesthetic relationships connecting all possible aspects of the design” (p. 192).

When I think of aesthetics I think of the whole user experience, of which graphic are definitely a prominent part, but it also includes such things as story, writing style, usability, medium, the technology used to deliver it, photos, illustrations, graphic design, and most anything else that can elicit an emotional or meaningful response outside of the raw content that is being delivered. It should relate to the content in a cohesive and logical way. It is arrived at through the efforts of many individuals, not just a graphic designer. It is established through an empathetic connection to the end user that through many avenues attempts to understand their needs and meet them.
            The aesthetics of a thing can be on a spectrum, from something that may elicit a negative response to something that can be edifying and life changing. Aesthetics are also subjective, which is why a deep understanding of your target audience is crucial.


When I began my journey into instructional design I was a little daunted by the application of the term “design” and how it might differ from my previous understanding of it. I am beginning to see design in the philosophical sense as something that is an evolutionary extension of my previous practices, not as an alternate reality. Developing a personal theory of design, what it is, how to be cultivate and exercise it, and how to discern good examples of it, is an exercise worthy of anyone who is in a field where creating artifacts that become our world is part of their duty.


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Cross, N. (1982). Designerly ways of knowing. Design Studies, 3(4), 221-227.

Cross, N. (2001).  Designerly ways of knowing: design discipline versus design science. Design Issues, 17(3), 49-55. 

Lawson, B. & Dorst, K. (2009). Design Expertise. Oxford: Elsevier.

Nelson, H., & Stolterman, E. (2012). The Design Way. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Norman, D. & Verganti, R. (2013). Incremental and radical innovation: design research vs. technology and meaning change. Design Issues 30(1), 78-96.

Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

Simon, H. (1996). The Sciences of the Artificial. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Spielberg, S. (1980). Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Special Edition [Motion Picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures. 

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