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Everything (that can be designed) has (already) been designed.

I always enjoy that quote from Charles Duell, Everything that can be invented already has been invented[1]. At the time, he apparently saw repetition in what was being filed at the Patent Office, and proposed the abolishment of the US Patent Office at the turn of the century. He mistook this to mean that there was no more room for invention and was perhaps a little too hasty in predicting the end of further innovation. Back then Duell didn’t have the ability to write a weblog post to suggest his concept and receive a gazillion posts suggesting otherwise. Today we’re much more fortunate - say something that is on your mind and someone might come along and agree or disagree with you. Like for instance - I like where Niti Bhan[2] is going with her thoughts on the difference between design and design thinking, but I don’t agree with how she’s set about explaining it.

Design vs. Design Thinking is a short post of her thinking about the ’so called divide’ between the two. Which is something I’ve long since mused, not so much the divide but the landscape of all design. And I would guess, from her own comments, that her interest in this is to figure out where the best intersection or marriage of design and business might be placed. If not, this has generally been my interest. But I found that in my initial sketches of what design is, that it was too broad, with two many different characteristics to simplify as one space. In fact the world of design was vast, and in between different spaces of design were the fruitful intersections of design and business. I sit here, typing on a rather delicious powerbook, designed and manufactured by Apple, writing in someone else’s software (MS), in a large comfortable chair, inside my home office, which has been designed and planned by me, inside a house architected by someone else (luckily), on a street which was planned by urban planners perhaps a 100 years ago, on the other side of a rather well known bridge designed by engineer Joseph Strauss [3], and so on. These things are all different solutions, designed by very different processes and equally different types of practitioners. Everything around us has been designed, with nature being the most adaptive and well designed of it all.

So because of this I set about considering design as a landscape or map, and have spent a lot of time plotting the varying activities of design as a practice, strategy and skill set along with those who do these things. Different types of design involve a different set of activities, people and knowledge. For instance, Martin Majoor [4], works in a different way to design a typeface, than say, Norman Foster [5] does when he designs a skyscraper. Additionally, in the broadest scope of things, I’ve found design isn’t just kept to the traditional activities that we might (as designers) consider, but in fact Chefs, programmers, ceramicists, copy writers and publishers could also be considered people who practice design. I’d argue that if you’ve moved all the furniture around in your living room before, to improve its comfort and feeling, then that was a small dose of design happening right there. Granted, it doesn’t mean you’re a designer by trade - but we all design, and in different jobs, some people design without sketching, using Adobe Photoshop or AshlarVellum [6] to do so. And its because of this, it is almost impossible to pit design against anything else.

So I decided to consider how to frame design activities in all disciplines, to discover which ones were worthy of placing on my map, could be the process one takes to set about producing a designed solution. I think in its most basic and fundamental form, the process of design that one embarks upon, can be seen in three steps/stages/phases (whatever): Abstract, Concept & Design. At first there is a sort of theoretical, not yet in existence, essence of a thought, state or problem solution. As designers, we set about to bring that abstract state into a concept, something that can be communicated, perhaps visualized, definitely discusses and shaped. The final stage is the design of the concept, into the form, solution or final presentation of the concept. I’m not sure if you were to have stood at Fort Point in San Francisco at around 1827, and said “We need a bridge to get over there” if that is a fair description of the Abstract, phase - but its about the time a typographer decides to start their first sketches of a typeface that it shifts from being abstract into a concept.

[Illustration of the Process of Design from a great height]

At a firm like IDEO [7], all design starts with a healthy amount of messing around in the abstract. Human Factors leads their approach to framing a design concept and problem - and they clearly (like others too) excel at bridging any gaps between these three phases, and at including the client, their customers and designers in the process.

However, a firm like Pentagram [8] generally won’t use the same process. I read somewhere, in an interview with Paula Scher (a partner at Pentagram) discussing her work on the citigroup logo, that she was told by Michael Beirut (also a partner) to not show the logo she had sketched either before or while meeting with the client. This is graphic design, and it tends to rely heavily on the skill, capabilities and style of an individual to provide a solution - not the employment of a process that encourages collaboration, innovation and design thinking. This doesn’t in any way lessen the validity of any design produced by Pentagram, or the work of any individual - but speaks to the difference in how (between my two examples) IDEO and Pentagram might approach solving a problem. So I found that these two firms, even being best of breed design firms, were to be positioned apart from each other on my ‘map’ because of their approach to design problems.

My work on the map of design was halted for a while when IDEO was profiled for their innovation work in BusinessWeek [9]. A new breed of designer emerged and it kind of threw me how to fit this practitioner into my map. Firms were going to emerge that specialized in Designing Business and wouldn’t have a single copy of Photoshop between them, so I stopped to look at how design consultancy was evolving. It certainly wasn’t a new thing, but definitely was a much larger thing now that industry as a whole was looking for new ways to squeeze shareholder value out of less. It was confirmed for me when reading Dan Saffer’s post [10] where he positioned that design has always been about business, and to think otherwise is wrong. My new map will make way for a larger focus on the intersection between design + business, but most importantly make way for these new practitioners that have become more visible lately.

So back to Niti’s post, which got me (re)thinking about all of this. Design Thinking is very much an integral part of all design activities. Whether you’re researching inspiration for the design of a new tabletop season at a retailer, or you’re designing an ethnographic study for a client at IDEO. And to separate them with their focus might not be as helpful as perhaps what are their differing characteristics?

If you placed ‘Graphic’ in front of Design is… then a few or more of her points might possibly fit. But it is unfair to consider that a graphic designer’s (or any designer’s) focus is on their portfolio or awards. Bruce Mau [11] certainly doesn’t care for them, neither does Milton Glaser [12]. The portfolio is merely the tool used to promote one’s completed work. But where her dichotomy does lend itself, is that in this case, she is using ‘design’ in the same way I used it for my framework - design is about the execution phase. It’s the last part of a creative endeavor. So I much prefer her list when labeled, Design Execution is about…

But I still want to rearrange this exercise (make it mine perhaps moving away from Niti’s original purpose) into something different. How could you tell the difference between the two if they were both standing in front of you, all dressed in black?

Design Execution is about realizing the solution, through understanding the criteria, specifications, details, positioning and user. The end result often brings about the attention of awards, applaud and the sales of framed-wall-hangings (i.e. posters). The process of this design execution often happens apart from anyone else, where the experienced practitioner in a particular discipline of design, will set about crafting and shaping the concept into it’s final presentation. This might done by a model-maker, typographer, illustrator or graphic designer

Design Thinking is about how to identify ‘the’ problem, develop it into a problem statement and develop frameworks and design principles out of it. It is strategic, yet detailed orientated. It is discipline agnostic, yet able to prescribe the right dosage of disciplines to enable a problem solving activity. It is academic and yet also practical in its application in business and the process of design. It is probably being carried out right now, somewhere on this planet by a team of people, many of who don’t use Apple computers.

In my work, I practice both the design execution and thinking. And I find it interesting that sometimes I simply cannot apply design thinking to the problem at hand. A logo will work with function and a long healthy life, but too much strategy can kill developing a simple, clear iconic symbol. The design thinking is needed in how to build a strong brand and manage the identity over time - but not in the creation of its mark.

So in spite of disagreeing with Niti’s post, I very much enjoyed it and the avalanche of thinking it brought about. And because of blogs (her’s and others) I hope I’ve said something that builds upon what she started and that can be built on further. And don’t suffer the fate of Duell and his memorable quote.

I’ll continue with my map and hopefully will be able to publish the illustrated map of design shortly.


1. It is probably a myth that this statement is true - Duell was at the time trying to point out the area where Patent activity would increase and so out of context this quote remains at best to be entertaining as it is probably untrue. Sorry. This says more about it.

2. Niti Bhan’s post is here. It is a short post which seems to be more of a post-it note to be collected with other thoughts in an ongoing stream of thinking about this. I don’t consider it to be her final word on it.

3. Joseph B. Strauss was a five foot tall engineer who designed the Golden Gate Bridge. has more.

4. Martin Majoor is a Dutch type designer who designed the typeface Scala. It took him about five years to design the typeface which FontShop first released two font families in 1991.

5. Sir Norman Foster, as I should have referred to him, is one of the planet’s leading architects. Foster has written and spoken a lot about Design being our greatest commodity, and his architecture is definitely unique in how he is willing to work at developing both green and sustainable buildings. He worked with Buckminster Fuller a lot before Fuller died.

6. Ashlar makes CAD software for product developers.

7. IDEO is a little known design firm here on planet earth. If I’m unable to work them into every article on design I write, then Bruce Nussbaum from Business Week surely will.

8. Pentagram are an equally unknown design practice here on the planet.

9. The PDF of the article can be downloaded from here.

10. Saffer’s post on the dichotomy of design and business is here.

11. Bruce Mau recently published Massive Change, and has been profiled as one of the best examples of how to design an organization for long-term creativity (the mix of institutional thinking and commercial design + innovative clients). See his incomplete manifesto for more.

12. Milton Glaser is an icon of American graphic design, who among other great pieces of work, designed the I (heart) New York logo.

2005-08-28 + plink