"The Way It Is" Is Not The Only Way It Can Be 

Design is a term that is expansive and universal yet hard to wrap up in a concise definition. Everything that has been intentionally created or caused by humans can be considered to have been designed. 

Let's check that definition. Can non-humans design? We typically wouldn’t say that animals design. We acknowledge that a crow can problem-solve in order to get a reward out of a glass bottle, but we generally wouldn’t call that design, since crows don’t have the same intellectual capability that humans do. We sometimes credit nature or a deity for the design of our environment and of our universe. So intentionality and intellect seem to be key parts of our definition of design, as well as a differentiation between design and problem-solving.

The act of designing also implies originality and creativity. These terms help us differentiate between research (the act of discovering something successful that someone else was responsible for, and building on the idea in a new context or situation) and design (an act of innovation, of creating something new). Of course, no ideas are truly original: all new ideas are built on existing ideas, be they conscious or subconscious. But in designing, we put our own deliberate spin on the idea.

Designs can inspire, pose a question, call attention to a problem, solve a problem, provide functionality, or simply make someone smile. I believe that good design occurs after analysis (breaking something down into pieces) and synthesis (putting pieces together to reveal a pattern). Ultimately, design is an action that is informed by the analysis/synthesis; designers take a stand in order to achieve some objective. Good designs rarely come quickly: they result from messy, iterative, and creative processes.

Design is found in most careers and beyond. Cooking dinner? You can follow a recipe or put something together on the fly -- and that’s design. Writing a proposal? You just designed it. Writing a definition of the word design? It's a little meta, but that’s design too. While design is universal, certain fields (graphic design, visual arts, performing arts, music composition, fashion design, information design, building design, object/product design, industrial design, systems design, etc.) can be considered design-intensive. These fields serve as a vast repository of different design heuristics, processes and approaches that may be adapted and used as teaching tools to help students discover their own design strategies and tools. 

At the end of the day, design is simply an empowering concept: you don’t have to do what others have done in the past. You can intentionally create something new and put it out into the world to achieve some objective. Design is powerful. It can affect behavior. It can foster change.

In sum, good designers question the status quo: the "way it is" is not the only way it can be.

-Susan Reynolds

Check back soon: I will be posting more OERs on this page in the near future.