What is the true extent of design as a discipline? I suggest we can encapsulate it within three fundamental elements in the product design process: science, technique, and art.
In an interview celebrating the second generation of the iPod back in 2003, Steve Jobs explained that the definition of design at Apple encompasses more than the appearance of things. “Design is not just how it looks or how it feels. Design is how it works”, he declared, to which I would add, “and what it brings to me.”
We still struggle to define the real scope of design as a discipline, and at times, this makes those of us who work in design get lost in the multitude of possible paths for professional development. To simplify this landscape, we can discuss three fundamental factors in the product design process: science, technique, and art.
The Science of product design
The scientific method allows us to generate knowledge through observation, evaluation, and critical thinking. This knowledge is essential for making decisions that align with our objectives. That’s why every design process must be rooted on user research.
This doesn’t mean going around asking people what they think or what they like. Designers use well-documented psychological, sociological, and anthropological principles, such as cognitive theory, Gestalt psychology, semiotics, dynamics in social relationships, and culture.
We observe people’s behavior in the contexts we want to transform, and we communicate with them not based on the literal words we hear but on the underlying meaning. We search for patterns and trends, motivations, and mental models that allow us to understand what people do and need in specific contexts.
With all this knowledge, which we document to share and revisit, we can make decisions confidently, knowing they will have the desired impact.
Critical thinking, described as “fundamental for effective innovation” by Harvard Business Review, is essential to ensure that this process is as free from bias as possible.
The Technique of product design
As necessary as knowledge is action. Technique involves pragmatic execution, making decisions based on technical feasibility, available resources, and the constraints and objectives of each project. We guide the project through the initial uncertainty to deliver a concrete and actionable proposal. As Scott Belsky, co-founder of Behance, says, “Execution is what distinguishes true innovators.”
Design practice requires us to master multiple techniques according to our specialization. For example, technical skills are essential in digital product design. It’s important to master the use of ideation and conceptualization methodologies, as well as design and prototyping tools to take the design process to tangible deliverables.
Other skills, such as facilitation, leadership, or planning, are equally relevant to ensure the success of collaborative teamwork.
The Art of product design
There are countless definitions of art, but when it comes to understanding the artistic factor in the product design process, we remember Tolstoy’s words: “Art is not a joy, nor a pleasure, nor an amusement; art is a great thing. It is a vital organ of humanity that carries the conceptions of reason into the domain of feeling.”
We are emotional beings, and we struggle to submit to reason. All the knowledge in the world is useless if we cannot establish a connection between emotion and reason, and this is where the artistic component of product design lies.
It’s about accepting the passions and emotions of people, especially those involved in the moments when the product we design is expected to intervene. It’s the deep understanding of the human being seeking to fulfill their desires, and our complicity in accompanying them in the process. This is the delight we experience when using a well-designed product, one that amplifies our capabilities and efforts, and empowers us to achieve our own goals. This satisfaction doesn’t necessarily come from beauty or aesthetics, but it is undeniably emotional and linked to the user’s desire for self-expression. And therefore, it is art.
Technical and scientific excellence, though essential, is sterile if it lacks humanity. And here lies the artistic factor of design processes.
Designing with a holistic vision
In the complex world of product design, we have explored the three essential factors: science, technique, and art. Each of them plays a critical role in the design process, and all are deeply interconnected.
- Scientific knowledge provides the foundation for a deep understanding of our users, their needs, and motivations. It equips us with the ability to make informed decisions supported by data and evidence.
- Technique allows us to carry out actions effectively. Through the mastery of tools, methodologies, and technical skills, we translate the vision into tangible and functional products.
- Art, ultimately, adds the human dimension to design. It recognizes and celebrates the complexity of human emotions and their influence on the user experience.
These three factors, the scientific, the technical, and the artistic, are not watertight compartments but interdependent components of a holistic design vision. Progress in any of these fronts enriches the other two.
Whether you choose a career path as a generalist, specialist, or in leadership, fostering connections between these three factors is essential. Because it is at the intersection of science, technique, and art where truly innovative and meaningful design solutions are born.
How to strengthen your approach to design
- Never stop learning. Read about psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Explore new design tools and methodologies.
- Collaborate with different profiles. Broaden your perspective by taking every opportunity to work with people from other disciplines.
- Practice active listening. Not just for user research but to connect with people in general and develop genuine empathy.
- Develop critical thinking. Question assumptions and seek evidence, reflecting and analyzing all available information. Engage in constructive debates with others.
- Practice your communication skills. Improve your ability to articulate, explain, and support your ideas.