As creative professionals, we are on the perpetual quest for ways and means to further enhance our understanding of the design industry. A domain which demands a quick turnaround of fresh ideas that is practical, original and impressionistic. More often than not, we pay exclusive attention to the traditional specificities within the field of design, such as aesthetic principals/trends, typographic elements and various other technical functionalities. While these facets of the design process are undeniably crucial, it is high time designers took a step back to fully understand and absorb the structure of the design process and its subsequent application in the industry.
Image credit: russheb
In this article, we’ll explore the introductory concepts involved in understanding design from a philosophical perspective. Or more specifically, how we can take notice of design around us and apply it to our own personal and commercial ventures. In many ways, design philosophy is about developing an understanding of how design operates within the confines of everyday life.
Quelling the Fear – Philosophy is not Complicated
The term “philosophy” often brings about shudders of discomfort to many professionals within the creative industry, a sentiment which I too used to share. There is a general tendency to associate philosophy with the notion of unnecessary complexity and abstractness. This is however an inaccurate assessment of philosophy. Ironically, philosophy is about returning to the basic fundamentals of a subject (which is design in this case). In fact, design philosophy strives to examine design in its purest state without any attached preconceived notions or subjectivities.
Clarifying the Semantics: What Does “Design Philosophy” Mean?
It is imperative that we first establish a stable definition of what design philosophy actually is. The most common interpretation of design philosophy, within web design circles at least, concerns design approaches. These include the usual suspects such as “minimalism” and “user-oriented design”. However these definitions are too specific for the purposes of this article. I have adopted a more generalized conceptualization of design philosophy.
Design philosophy is an examination of the structural planning involved in the creation of any object/art that serves a particular function within the realms of our everyday life.
In the broadest of generalizations, the structural planning of a design refers to the identification of design problems, and the drawing up of proposed functional solutions to address these problems in a manner that is most efficient to the design’s primary goals and objectives. There are 5 central sub-components of design philosophy – researching, redefining, managing, prototyping and trend spotting. I shall now provide an elaboration of each area in an effort to present to you a more holistic understanding of how design philosophy operates within the web design industry.
Research – A Thorough Exploration of the Design Context
Research bears a certain similarity to the process of brainstorming but with 2 key differences. The latter allows for flexibility and versatile thinking – random ideas are generated in quick succession with an emphasis on quantity rather than quality. Brainstorming also pays particular attention to the generation of new concepts rather than a refinement of existing ideas.
Research however is a more calculated approach to exploring the context of a design problem. It involves the careful consideration of the problem at hand by weighing the constraints of a particular design. Design constraints are the primary functional objectives that the design in question must achieve (this could of course be related to specific client demands). They can be divided into non-negotiable and negotiable constraints.
For example, when designing a chair, there would be a specific set of constraints that a designer would have to grapple with. Firstly, the chair has to be able to take on a certain load (weight) to meet its basic functional requirement (A chair which collapses upon the application of the slightest weight, is not a chair!). The “weight constraint” of a chair is non-negotiable as without it, the design would cease to be functional and would thus not provide a proper solution to the design problem at hand.
The negotiable constraints in constructing a chair would be constraints which can be quite liberally modified and tinkered with. One’s choice of materials in constructing a chair, its color, type of wood finishing and other finer intricate aesthetic qualities represent negotiable constraints that are adjustable.
In the case of websites, these constraints are categorically divided into form and function. Form refers to the aesthetic qualities of a website, which include its typographic elements, layout structure and other visual elements that comprise of negotiable constraints. Non-negotiable constraints in web design refer to the functional aspects of a website which addresses how a website operates and meets its objectives. If you are designing a personal portfolio (see image above – the portfolio gallery of web designer Shannon Moeller), the website must be equipped with a gallery of some sort to showcase your work; it is a non-negotiable constraint which cannot be overlooked.
Research in design involves the intelligent “tinkering” of these variables to satisfy non-negotiable constraints and fully capitalize on negotiable constraints. A designer’s interaction with design constraints occurs well before the design process proper, during its preliminary planning stages.
Redefining – Shaping Your Proposed Design Plan
Once you have identified the design problem and noted its negotiable and non-negotiable constraints, it is vital to delve into the details/specifications of the design solution, to ensure that the design concept is better suited to industry standards and expectations. In the web design world, we often adhere to clean, concise and logical mark-ups and a clear separation of style from content through CSS. These are established industry standards which should be met before a website is considered to be fully functional and interoperable on various browsers.
Image credit: tkeapurtell
The redefining phase however should never result in a drastic change of a website’s primary goals and objectives, as it is a process that is intended to transform a design idea into a more practical, applicable and “industry-friendly” solution to the presiding design problem. The speed, maintainability and accessibility of a website are strongly dependent upon how a design idea is redefined.
Managing – Ensuring Continuity
Good design concepts (especially in the case of websites) often withstand the test of time – they remain in fashion and are functionally reliable even in periods of heightened technical/aesthetic progression. Google is perhaps one of the greatest examples of how a design can maintain a standardized continuity through time. They have effectively maintained a consistent visual layout through the course of over 10 years. The Google logo has also tastefully evolved to reflect a greater use of white space – a contemporary design trend that ensures website readability. The continuity of a design can only be ascertained through the proper management of how a design develops and “matures” over the years.
A central aspect of design management lies in the ability to re-design. It is not uncommon for websites to undergo several redesigns in the span of 5 to 8 years. Redesigning however does not refer to drastic overhauls but gradual upgrades to the aesthetic look of a website and how it functions (popularly defined as “realignment”). To manage a design, one has to adopt a keen sensitivity to updated technologies and new web design methodologies. Having the ability to upgrade a website’s existing content-management system to provide more sophisticated on-site functionalities (such as a detailed and comprehensive blog-post archives catalogue) is a good example of efficient design management. The bottom line however is to ensure that the website design degrades gracefully over time, without appearing disjointed or out of sync with modern design sensibilities.
Prototyping – Always Be Prepared to Adapt and Tweak
Prototyping is the anticipation of possible scenarios or solutions that exponentially or significantly improve a particular design solution. In certain cases, prototyping involves the construction of hypothetical case studies to determine newer ways in which an existing design can be tweaked to provide better and more wide-ranging solutions. The development of online open-source software such as Linux, Eclipse, Apache and Mozilla are examples of publically documented prototypes. These prototypes are not conventional prototypes but working examples of software that are intended to aid and continually improve our online browsing and computing experience. Every future version of the design/software is built upon the foundations of a previous model.
The most popular prototyping method in the web design world is the Visual Prototype Model (also known in common parlance as “website mock-ups”). It captures the intended design aesthetic through a simulation of the color and appearance of the proposed design idea without embodying any functional aspects of the final product. There are strong debates within the design community over its actual usefulness and particular calls have been made for web designers to make their mock-ups in proper markup (see accompanying image). There seems to be a gradual shift towards the Functional Prototype Model – a practical attempt to simulate the final design through a strict adherence to aesthetics and functionality. Either way, the prototype is a useful tool in design philosophy, to better conceptualize how existing ideas can be expanded upon and applied to solve a wider range of problems.
Trendspotting – Keeping Up With the Times
Trends are an inextricable part of contemporary design philosophy. They define the artistic and technical complexion of an industry and determine if your business is up to par with the latest developments in the design scene. An often neglected element of design philosophy, trend spotting is all about making mental notes of various aesthetic/technical styles in design whilst incorporating their essence in your own design projects. Trends serve as a wonderful basis for constructing spin-off ideas. They encourage creative consistency while still allowing designers to push the boundaries of these predominant styles in the hope of acquiring a design that is both unique and yet widely usable. An example of such a phenomenon is the rise of hand-drawn designs. Creative hand-drawn designs are fast becoming an integral aesthetic feature of website designs (see image) – it is a burgeoning trend which encourages designers to explore the beauty and flexibility of free hand illustration.
Concluding Remarks – Philosophy is Your Friend
As designers we are often more interested in employing new design ideas in our work than studying the ontological nature of these concepts and how they can be applied constructively. Design philosophy is very much about analyzing the methodological practice of design as opposed to the design itself. It demands a re-thinking of the entire design work flow in ways that allow designers to make best use of the resources at their disposal. Remember that philosophy is your friend!