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Real Life Impact of Design: Design with a big “D”

By Dr. Sean Carton, Chief Creative Officer and Professor of the Practice at the University of Baltimore

When thinking about how deisgn impacts "real life," perhaps the best advice I've read lately comes from Diego Rodriguez, a partner at IDEO and professor at Stanford's d. School. "Stop," says Rodriguez, "treating design as a noun."

Rodriguez's exhortation gets to the heart of the all-too-prevalent wrong-headed thinking about "design." "Design," when treated as a noun, becomes nothing more than something that's slapped on at the end to "pretty things up." "Designers" become nothing more than decorators, people with a mysterious aesthetic talent for "making things look good." And when budgets are tight (like they are so often today), making things look good always takes a back seat to making things "work."

But the two aren't separate. To be useful, something has to be used by humans in order to solve a problem or accomplish a task. If people can't use something to to do these things, then it's worthless. It's design that makes it possible for humans to get things done.

We define design as "creating beautiful solutions to human problems." Design is about everything that goes into solving a problem in as innovative and beautiful way. When building a website, this approach means that the strategy, information architecture, database design, and the backend code are just as much a part of the "design" as the visual interface of the site. When creating an online ad, the visual part of the design is just one part of a larger chain of design that encompasses the call to action, the code that processes the responses elicited by the ad, the database that collects the data, and the reporting system that we use to keep track of the campaign's effectiveness. The system itself is what's "designed," not just the visual part that's out front.

If you look at design in this way and understand that innovation and real-world impact are an integral part of design, it's not hard to see how design impacts our lives every day… for good or ill.

A beautifully designed object–one that delights our aesthetic sense while intuitively allowing us to accomplish tasks because its form and function are based on a real understanding of human need–makes our lives better.

A poorly designed ojbect- one that assaults us with inferior aesthetics and whose function is obscured by a poor understanding of how people live–makes life difficult.

Of course, real life isn't always that cut-and-dried. an object can look great but function poorly or look terrible but be able to basically perform its intended functions. "Design with a big 'D'" mean balancing and integrating both form and function to create solutions that are more than the sum of their parts.

-Dr. Sean Carton