Defining Design

Your Voice: Perspectives: Defining design
How does design affect your work, purchases, and life in general? What is design? What are examples of good design, or bad design? Minnesota Public Radio wants to know what you know or understand about design.

Our Public Insight Journalism team turned to their network to help inform an upcoming series on design. Some respondees gave us permission to share their perspectives, and we're offering their definitions of design as well as examples given of good (or bad) design.

Help us cover this topic. Read and reflect on their viewpoints here and join our Public Insight Journalism network to share your own perspective on design.




Design is... the process of balancing beauty, function, and logic when creating something for regular use. These values do not have to be equally expressed in each object.

About a year ago, I bought a new computer desk for my home office. I looked at several models before settling on one with a contemporary look. What sold me? Not the look, but the multiple layers of work space -- five shelf layers at various heights, none of them so high I have to stand to reach them. Some designer imagined the users and came up with something that works and looks good. Something you use every day must be well designed for its use. This one looks good, and the looks attracted me first. But if the design had made it difficult to use, I would have looked further.

Jim Peck
Austin, MN




Design is... natural when done right; frustrating when done wrong

One of our local grocery stores has a layout that is unique, but annoying. They have good products, but I avoid shopping there because of the store design.

Joelle Davis
Tulatin, OR




Design is... a process (i.e. problem solving) for making things function better and more aesthetically pleasing.

Perhaps one of the most common examples of bad design is in the cookie-cutter homes of suburbia. Not only are they cartoonish renditions of bad Victorian and Republic period design, but they use interior space ineffectively and generate a sense of monotony in vinyl and plastic.

Scott Short
Menomonie, WI




Design is... the form, function and character of community.

For me, design seeks to create places that support human activity in a sustainable manner. My neighborhood is more than a collection of houses. Sidewalks and parks give me places to meet my neighbors. Trees and open space add comfort and character. It is a place where I feel safe. The things that I need/want in my life (schools, church, goods and services, employment, recreation) are accessible. The characteristic of the place and the people in it make me want to stay. This attachment combined with economic factors allows me to invest in bettering my house and the community.

Rusty Fifield
Apple Valley, MN




Design is... the intentional giving of some quality or qualities to a creation for a desired effect.

When I visited the new Minneapolis Public Library for the first time, I was struck upon entrance by the effort to give it immediate impact as modern, exciting, uplifting, bright, open and welcoming.

Roger Sween
Red Wing, MN




Design is... an emotional and functional connection between humans and our environment.

Design of any kind, at its best, is the perfect communication of an idea in the fewest possible words, sounds, or pictures. I like to think of it as a machine without a single non-essential part.

Jason Voiovich
St. Paul, MN




Design is... everywhere-everything.

My first over the top reaction to good design was in 1984, when I went computer shopping--I did not know what I was looking for; I tried some PC's and after I was just about to give up, a sales person introduced me to the Macintosh--a real human, logical design and interface--wow!

As a frequent traveler to Japan, I am constantly amazed by the level of design thought in much of Japanese public spaces, objects and public transportation systems.

James Brew
Duluth, MN




Design is... an increasingly important part of my life.

I believe that good design can actually make your life outlook better. The more aware I become of the positive impact of design, the more I demand it in my life, and the happier I think I become.

Meredith Fox
Minneapolis, MN




Design is... a love-hate relationship. I love the challange, I hate the frustration.

Good design: my 1972 Bristol 34 sailboat, designed by Halsey Herreshoff. A timeless beauty.
Bad design: New Orleans, my city below sea level. A timeless mess.

The knee-deep water lingered in our living room even though Katrina had passed seven days earlier. Half of our home was still underwater. Georgette and I cautiously waded through our lost investment, followed by a wandering press photographer from Boston. Our concerns had little in common. The photographer feared alligators. We mostly feared snakes for the present, and everything else about the future. The hurricane had handed us our second flood in this house---and the third in our 30 year marriage. I promised myself to devise a better design for the rest of our lives.

We commandeered a drifting canoe and floated our most valuable possessions to the car, several blocks away. After an outdoor shower with bottled water, we weaved our way through the fallen trees onto the soldier-lined highway. Our overpriced evacuation apartment was 150 miles to the West. To maintain sanity, our conversation quickly shifted from what had happened to what lies ahead. We clearly had a lot of designing to do. The promise of a better life kept our tears at bay.

I am cursed with an engineering background, so I confidently proposed a string of ideas to forever bar floods from our lives. My designs covered a wide spectrum: we could raise the house four feet---or put up a flood wall---or perhaps tear the whole place down and rebuild high above any future threat. Our future was a blank sheet of paper. The pencil was in our hands. The allure of fresh designs kept us from going insane.

Arthur Zatarain
Metairie, LA




Design is... the effective use of visual, textural, and sometimes audio media to achieve your desired result whether a calming space or getting someone to buy your can of tuna.

Christina Neitz
Minneapolis, MN




Design is... the human attempt to make something look good and do it's job well.

I've experience bad design with clock radios in hotels that require written of instructions to set the alarm--and then you still don't do everything right and the alarm goes off at 7 PM (if at all).

Sheldon Mains
Minneapolis, MN




Design is... both a process and a product. A means and an end. Design is creative thinking.

Every time I get an official something in the mail from my insurance providers -- health care, mortgage, car, etc. If you have to put "THIS IS NOT A BILL" at the top of the page, you must not be communicating very well. The statement should be designed in such a way so that there's little to no confusion, and few, if any, questions left unanswered. I think if a player in this industry were to figure out how to communicate on a human, layperson's level, they could substantially increase customer loyalty and market share.

Mark Saunders
St. Paul, MN




Design is... the difference between something you like, and something you hate.

Experiences with bad design are particularly memorable. I remember tearing apart the oil filter on our 1971 Impala every time I tried to change it. The design put it in a spot where the mechanic could barely get to it, and where it got so hot that the gasket baked it on. I've never purchased a GM product since.

Rob Rossi
Minneapolis, MN




Design is... the coming together of material, shape, color, texture and function.

Design is for me the key on how I meet my world each day. We start the day with the perfect design of nature in the sunrise or cloud enshrouded in morning light and end the day in the same manner.

I'm aware of design in all things that I purchase. I can't bring myself to buy anything that isn't pleasing in color and shape and useful on some level. If an item is both beautiful and useful then it is a 10 in my book.

Mary Haeg
San Francisco, CA




Design is... the art of creating a spiritually enlightening environment-satori thru art!

Ruth Lordan
Edina, MN




Design is... the intersection of utility and aesthetics chosen by the designer.

A house is most families' most expensive consumer possession by far. I sit on the zoning board of appeals in a tourist village in the Adirdondacks. People there are being told it costs the same to build big as to build small and big resells higher, so big build. The builder doesn't see the point in cutting the ends off boards to make smaller rooms, either. So they come in to get relief from zoning laws to replace a lakeshore cabin with a McMansion.

Is the goal of design to make life comfortable for the inhabitant or object owner, or to impress others? Will we become like Kings in castles, less comfortable than the lowly crofter in his snug cottage because we can't afford to heat or cool them?

The design of these homes with a separate room for each activity is also spinning families from a central gathering unit into the isolation made possible by these behemoth homes, even as they consume egregious amounts of resources in the building and running of them.

Meredith McComb
Bolton Landing, NY




Design is... the elements or components that make up the things around us. Not only should they be functional, but aesthetically pleasing as well.

I have been in design many years, from background sets to landscape. I often look at landscape design and am acutely aware of the enhancement of a home, or the detraction of another.

Dan Middleton
Ceres, CA




Design is... so intrinsic to our nature that it is nearly invisible, yet it is essential.

Good design can overcome language barriers. A woman who did not speak English checked her prescription by looking at the diagram of the shape and color of the pills that were supposed to be in the bottle and found they didn't match. She was able to alert the pharmacist right away and a potential catastrophe was averted.

Similarly, I am always impressed with the assembly instructions that come with Ikea products. Because they are sold in so many countries, there are no words - just simple line art illustrations that are very clear. In addition, the assembly methods and tools are fairly consistent despite their large product line.

Amy Fastenau
Minneapolis, MN




Design is... crucial: if it isn't aesthetically pleasing I don't want to own it or use it.

A big reason I chose my college was based on their pleasing, professional admissions marketing collateral. The color choices centered on regal purple, with a distinguished font and university crest. Their design choices were very rhetorically successful: I felt this school would provide me with an exceptional education and a classic campus setting in which to live.

Kimberly Pearson
Okoboji, IA




Design is... often intentional; occasionally accidental.

I am aware of good design looking through the beautiful windows at the Mill City Museum and enjoying the view and the thoughtful approach to the design of the space and building.

I am tortured by poor design when I see things that could easily be enhanced but are instead slapped up following a standard that exists for no real reason - bad typography, poor building design, too much plastic.

Maureen Mitton
Hudson, WI




Design is... everything we make. But great design means never having to apologize for those creations.

I first was aware of design from the age of eight when I was taught origami. It changed my life and is why I became a packaging designer. Making a shape from something that started out flat is almost like magic. I still love it.

Wendy Jedlicka
Roseville, MN




Design is... affecting everything of and about our world.

I am aware of design all of the time. One instance that I reacted quite a bit to was trying to find the entrance to a restaurant in Minneapolis. We walked half way around it and back again and then had to walk through a patio area where everyone was smokingļæ½just stupid. No signs, no indications at all.

Shelley Pecha
Menomonie, WI




Design is... a part of our existence. It can be as trivial as a box of cereal to as vital as the breakthrough design of an artificial heart.

The poor design of so many states' ballots during the 2000 presidential election showed just how important and vital design is to our society.

Scott Kneeskern
Stillwater, MN




Design is... at least 20% of everything. It speaks to our illogical senses.

During a recent viewing of a very popular Norwegian show "Typisk Norsk" I was nodding my head repeatedly during the open credits. Their designers used a formula I've seen many times before, but with absolute perfection. Scenes were collaged together to create a sense of whimsy and nostalgia; antiques, common household appliances, taxidermy, and scenic backdrops felt friendly, familiar and innovative. The reason their designers made me so pleased was their integrity with color. I think in many forms of mass media it is easy to approximate how much thought was put into the color scheme. Typisk Norsk made their common collage technique thoughtful and sentimental by allowing natural pastel colors to speak with a modern tone. When this occasion occurs and I feel beyond satisfied with design, I say to myself, "They really get me." Then through further investigation I come across other fans of the same design and my thought changes: "They've found their audience."

Jessica Gleason
Minneapolis, MN




Design is... how something (an object, a space, a building) makes you feel and how it works.

Eric Silva -Somerville, MA



Design is... the process of making something aesthetically pleasing.

Design enters how I set up a room, my office, how I decide to serve the food I've grilled (audience is a motivator, here), how I decide to dress for a certain context, what diction I use in speaking about design to MPR. Design is all--is both the formulation of form and the final form itself.

Matt Mauch
Minneapolis, MN




Design is... a construct that helps to define who I am and what I value.

I went to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which is focused on the visual arts. The place was filled with great design through the ages -- from an enormous Persian rug to tile work to wrought iron. It reminded me that great design isn't just modern design. It's the stuff that is somehow transcendent in its beauty, or achieves something nearly perfect in the interplay between form and function.

Mary-Margaret Zindren
St. Paul, MN




Design is... creation and configuration of features to meet a set of requirements.

Some traffic lights in Madison are synchronized so, if traveling the speed limit, cars should not have to stop once they get going.

Eric Anderson
Madison, WI




Design is... the perfect blending of form and function.

A mundane example of good design is a ball point pen my husband brought home that was joy to use. The barrel was clear plastic so you could see when you were about to run out of ink. The pen was refillable, thus keeping it out of landfills for a little longer. Though it wasn't especially large in diameter, I could hold it comfortably even when my hands were bothered by arthritis. And the ink/point combined to make writing a joy instead of a chore as the words flowed effortlessly over the paper.

Lisa Richards
Beech Grove, IN




Design is... the intentional consideration of form, such as shape, color, ordering, space and texture, as it related to our surroundings, objects in our lives, and interactions with others. It is the place where logic and art intersect.

As a Home Stager and Interior Decorator I am mostly called into situations where people need some help. A home with a good floor plan is really important. Often you can walk into a property and think, "What was this builder thinking? Why did they close off the kitchen like that or why is this front entry so small?" Also, choppiness in general is not good. Flow is really important in creating a peaceful, harmonious and satisfying environment. This is achieved through good architecture, balance or symmetry, a coordinated color palette, and thoughtful use of accessories and furnishings throughout the home or office. It doesn't mean every room should be beige though; that's stagnate and boring. A well-designed space will flow and will move you forward through the space stimulating and satisfying your senses. Color is wonderfully powerful for that, but it has to be done well.

Also, spending a lot of money doesn't necessarily buy you good design. I've seen some really ugly design in some really expensive places... mostly it is where things are "over done"; they're too coordinated and don't look natural.

Katie Sterns
St. Paul, MN




Design is... whether it was by God, evolution or man, all things have a design. There is the design of the function, but the word design to me means the "look" of things.

While dating my wife, I was watching her shake crumpled crackers on her corn casserole. As she shook the wax paper the big crumbs fell out first and the little pieces came out last. So one end of the dish had large pieces and other had a small dusting. I commented on the design and she replied that I did not have to eat dinner with her, if the look of the food was more important than eating with her! So there you have it, the big question, is the design of something that important. I believe yes, but have been eating her casseroles with her for 24 years! Why have tomato juice when you can have a V-8!

John Byerly
State Center, IA




Design is... the art or action of producing a plan, the underlying purpose.

I was walking around the ICU at Mass General Hospital and I was scared at the design choices that drive patient outcomes/decisions.

Juhan Sonin
Boston, MA




Design is... applying knowledge and experience to provide a solution to reach desired outcomes.

Working with tax forms for the first time, I was astounded by the awful design of the tax forms: taking multiple steps where one could suffice (e.g., multiply a number by 0.3; subtract the result from the original number - when I could have simply multiplied the original number by 0.7!); referring to multiple different forms, worksheets and instruction sets without advance warning; and then a ridiculous situation between the state and the feds, where I needed to figure an estimate of my state taxes (for an estimated deduction on my federal return) - but the state form first asked for the amount entered on the federal form! Very frustrating!

Michael Lee
Minnetonka, MN




Design is... a personal choice to convey, without words, your attitude, emotions and values.

The Chevrolet Vega speaks for itself. I had an early appreciation for cars as a child and when I saw the Vega, I knew exactly what bad design was, at a quick glance.

Steven Brophy
St. Paul, WI




Design is... not just the imagination wrapped around a created thing, not just the beauty that covers it, but the substance of what makes a good thing work beautifully AND feel beautiful.

Burger King's put a great deal of thought into designing their experience lately. From big things like viral web sites, to packaging. My favorite is their boxes of chicken fingers. Like their cups and fries, they have witty copywriting all over them, but these boxes come with built-in dipping sauce holders, a smart little modification and a practical thing if you're eating in the car. While most fast food is eaten mindlessly, Burger King's packaging has me turning it over, reading, admiring the design, and even thinking to myself, "Gee, what has McDonald's done for me lately?" The experience is not dissimilar to that of eating a fortune cookie. It's more than just a cookie or fries. Good design captures your senses and emotions like that.

Andrew Wright
Hudson, WI




Design is... creating that which does not exist or improving that which already exists.

Zach Ditter
Fargo, ND




Design is... the intersection of form and function: how we feel and what we think about objects and and processes as we interact with them in our everyday activities.

Tivo is a great example of good design. It's so straightforward and easy to use.

Kris Baggenstoss
St. Paul, MN






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