What is Design?

So, what distinguishes a designer from a decorator or an artist?

Decoration is created to please the senses, and is thus associated with pleasure. Decoration is often the last step, the icing on the cake. Using that metaphor, the designer fashions the shape of the cake, and the materials used in making the cake. The decorator embellishes, and adds value to the aesthetic quality of the cake.

Photo of a Kohler Co. bathroom design.
Photo courtesy of Kohler, Co.

While a designer does remain concerned with aesthetics, a designer is more fundamentally concerned with the question "will this work for people?" The aesthetics of the cake are a concern of the designer, because if it is unappealing, the consumer won't choose the cake. But the decorator makes the cake a work of art.

Illustration showing Mobile Hot Food Container features.
Photo courtesy of Ricardo Gomes,

San Francisco State University

Art for art's sake is outside the professional realm of a designer. While many designers are equally good artists, the motivation to create the designer's work is based in the needs of the human body. Art is used in design, and some pieces created by a designer can stand alone as a work of art. But art can be set free of more practical physical limitations that design must always consider. Design remains focused on the human use of the piece of work.

So, what distinguishes a designer from an engineer?

Engineering is also related to design, and meets many of the same needs that design meets.

However, design is more apt to blend aesthetic qualities and judgments with more practical concerns of human need. The engineer is concerned with the physical requirements and parameters of a project or product. The designer is concerned with these things, too, and often collaborates with engineers on a project. But the designer blends this with a concern with whether or not the product, space, or tool is also pleasing to the eye. Thus, designers combine technology and art to create where we live and what we use.

A magazine cover with a photo of a Tivoli outdoor elevator in Copenhagen.
Copyright Form & Funktion:
Nordic Design for All Magazine,
No. 1, Vol. 2, June 2003