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Design how it looks VS design how it works

Updated: May 7, 2022


Design is a very mysterious word. Most people perceive design as the look rather than function. If they say that design isn't good, they mean that the design has inferior representation in terms of packaging or decorative visual appearance. However design is more of a function than look. This can be seen from the idea that "form follows function" and the word "functional beauty". On the other hand, when the phrase "design thinking" came out, design started to be perceived in a totally different way. Design thinking is an iterative process for addressing uncertain or unknown problems.

However, here, design is interpreted as "the process of incorporating functions into visual and structural forms". However, that visual and structural can change depending on the design location.



Design is not what it looks like

What is design? A common misunderstanding is that design is a picture or image. Apple CEO Steve Jobs said, "Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it's really how it works."


The visual design is, for example, is a button with a beautiful gradient. On the other hand, the design of how it works is to examine what kind of state is possible, think about each figure, and design how it behaves. So, in short, design isn't just about appearance. It is important to convey to the user how it works through its appearance.

Previously, there was a hot discussion about buttons on a drip coffee machine at a Japanese convenience store were difficult to understand. Under the "Hot coffee" and "Ice coffee" labels, there were large "R" and "L" buttons, with "Regular" and "Large" meanings respectively. The design looked good and stylish, but some people were too confused about the layout where "R" was placed is on the left and the "L" was on the right, which seemed to have ignited the confusion (only after a few years, the confusion has disappeared after the Japanese words "hot coffee," "ice coffee," "normal," and "large" are added below as clarification). This is a very good example of when design doesn't work the way it looks.



The difference between design and art


Another common question is what is the difference between design and art?


First of all, design is not art.


Even if design approaches or overlaps with art, design and art have different goals. Art is a personal expression that moves and inspires people. On the other hand, the purpose of design is not only to solve problems with appearance, but also by function and movement.

The butterfly stool designed by Sori Yanagi is by no means a comfortable chair, but it is highly regarded for its beauty. In addition, the table designed by Isamu Kenmochi is characterized by the legs that bounce inward, created with the purpose of giving you that inspirational feeling. Both of these products are designed to be more artistic than problem-solving.



Applying functionality into visuals and structures


So what does design mean? The concept of design covers a wide range, but when it comes to software such as websites and apps, I think that design is "the process of applying functions into visual (appearance) and structures." For example, when you try to create a shopping site (or related app), you will need various functions such as a homepage where you can see the outline and additional information at once, a page where you can compare and examine, and details page where you can see the specifications. How to show them and how to relate them to each other (i.e. back and forth navigation) is the act of design.

Solutions in design cannot be narrowed down to only one


There are many ways in which the visuals and structures can be used to achieve a function. In other words, there is more than one way to design. For example, even if you are traveling, for example, from Paris to Lyon, there are various things such as high speed rail, cars, bicycles, etc. No matter what you'll take, there will be no mistake. This is because the optimal solution depends on the conditions, you prioritize time when you take high speed rail, when you want to enjoy the scenery and nature you'll drive a car or ride a bicycle. However, if you choose walking, this won't be a very feasible solution. The same in design - lots of approaches, but not all of them fit to be the solution.



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