What do designers do?

One of the tasks in my introductory design class is a weekly reflective journal. I got in the habit of keeping a study journal over the summer, and I think that this reflective journal is akin to a study journal. It’s more formal, though. And so I find myself approaching it like a short essay assignment of sorts. I pick a question or issue I’m grappling with, and I try to answer it.

This last week I attempted to grapple with the question, “What do designers do?” I’m talking about interaction designers, experience designers, and the like. Not architects or graphic designers, necessarily (although I’m sure there would be some disciplinary overlap..)

This is an important question. I know this because it’s an incredibly difficult question to answer. I’m not sure that is has been answered completely. I’m not sure that it can be answered completely. It seems an insurmountable task. To articulate what designers do is akin to answering the question Who am I.

I don’t make this claim because I believe a person is what he or she does. I do so because the answer to the question Who am I is equally complex — so much so that it, too, seems unanswerable. As soon as you’ve dotted the last i, the answer has changed. Are you the same person you were when you set out to answer the question in the first place? Almost definitely not. If you were, then you would not have grown an intellectual millimeter in the time you took to attempt an answer.

The key observation is this: How can you answer a question if the answer to the question will have changed by the time you “finish” crafting your answer? If the answer is never the same?

Think of it like this. I’m talking about summiting a mountain that keeps getting taller as you climb it. Mt. Everest is 29,029 feet tall. What if, by the time you got to 29,029 feet, the mountain had grown to 31,031 feet? Does that mean you don’t try to reach the top because it is physically (or intellectually) impossible to do so? Or do you drive an ice axe into the mountain and keep climbing?

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