What is design

There is much confusion about the definition of design. Some people attribute design to aesthetics. Some people attribute design to usability. But design is more than aesthetics and usability. Design at its essence is problem-solving. For something to be well designed, it has to solve a problem in the best possible way.

Design is concerned with human problems. For example, a mother struggling to carry her baby is a human problem. This problem is be solved by designing a baby carrier. For example, children in a poor country not going to school is a human problem. This problem is solved by designing a school program which motivates parents to send children to school, like a school which provides free lunch. Since design is concerned with solving problems, it is relevant in diverse fields from fashion to public policy.

Human problems are difficult to solve compared to non-human problems because of the difficulty in acquiring knowledge about human behaviour. There is no such difficulty in acquiring knowledge of non-human systems. For example, acquiring knowledge of how a car works is not difficult. With that knowledge, any problem in a car can be solved. But knowledge of what drives human behaviour is not easy to acquire. Without this knowledge solving human problems becomes difficult.

Design sometimes uses engineering to solve a problem. Engineering is concerned with making things. Engineering itself cannot solve problems, it is merely a tool. For example, making a car which runs on batteries is an engineering problem. But reducing pollution by encouraging people to buy expensive electric cars is a design problem. Traditionally, design has been associated with aesthetics as it is purely a human problem. Anyone can engineer a canvas and a brush, but to paint a masterpiece is difficult. Some people are better in design than others. Such people have knowledge of human behaviour. Since it is not clear how these people acquired this knowledge, design is often seen as art.

Examples of problems design solves:- #


Making people look more attractive by using clothes and accessories.


Providing an emotional distraction to people using sound and imagery.

Product design

Solving problems in the daily lives of people by making things.


Persuading people to use a product/service to solve a problem.

UI/UX design

Helping people use a computer to solve a problem.

Public policy

Designing laws which help prevent people from harming each other without limiting their freedom.

How to acquire knowledge of human behaviour? #

Knowledge can be acquired through experience or empathy.

Experience #

Knowledge of human behaviour in a specific area can be acquired through trial and error. For example, a person who works in advertising can acquire knowledge about human behaviour towards advertisements after years of succeeding and failing in making advertisements. The experience of making hundreds of advertisements will teach him to judge advertisements from the perspective of people. This knowledge will be subconscious. He will use it through his instincts. He will not be able to communicate it to another person. This is why books and knowledge from experts cannot substitute learning from experience.

Empathy #

There are patterns in the behaviour of all people. These patterns can be used to predict human behaviour. But this knowledge is rare. It is only gained through the observation of oneself and others objectively. Most people can’t observe themselves or others objectively due to their selfish nature. Selfishness makes a person a biased observer. A selfless person will have no such bias. He can observe himself and others objectively. He can see patterns in human behaviour through this observation. This knowledge is subconscious, uncommunicable and used through instincts.

Examples of empathy lead design #

Product design #

Many companies struggle with designing products which customers like. They use focus group discussions, market iterations and data/analytics to understand the customer perspective. But all these techniques can only help them guess the customer perspective. So they always fall short of customer expectations. But a company which empathetically understands its customers will intuitively design its products which delight customers. Only such companies are capable of innovation. Any company can do focus group discussions, do market iterations or use data/analytics, but very few companies have empathy. This is why Apple innovates and Google iterates.

User experience design #

Many service companies struggle to give a good experience to customers even when they want to. For example, a five-star hotel might never see an absolute reduction in guest complaints in spite of constantly implementing guest feedback. This happens because the hotel wants to give a good experience to guests not out of empathy, but out of a selfish intent to make money. The lack of empathy prevents it from seeing the guest’s perspective. Without a guest’s perspective, it can only guess what a guest needs. So it always falls short of the guest expectations. Even if it fixes one mistake after guest feedback, another mistake will crop up. In contrast, a family owned B&B will be able to meet and exceed the guest’s expectations. This happens because the B&B owner wants to give a good experience to guests out of empathy. This empathy will enable the B&B owner to see a guest perspective and know exactly what he needs. With that knowledge, the B&B owner can meet and exceed his guest’s expectations. For example, he will know that greeting a guest with salutations is not as important as giving a refund to a guest who had to cancel a booking on short notice due to unavoidable reasons.

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