Some Thoughts About Design

I’ve been thinking about a question put forth by people smarter than me about Design. John Heskett articulates it best:

[Why has design] never cohered into a unified profession, such as law, medicine, or architecture, where a license or similar qualification is required to practice…? [1] 

I’m wondering if an answer to this question isn’t veiled in another widely argued–if not accepted–truth about design. Namely, that it is a basic human activity.

It is our very ability to design that determines our humanness. [2]

Design is one of the basic characteristics of what it is to be human. [1]

I don’t have a fully formed answer, here. So if you’re expecting something more articulate, now would be the time to recalibrate your expectations. But consider this: law and medicine are not basic characteristics of what it means to be human, nor does our ability to practice these things determine our humanness. Since these are not basic characteristics of what it means to be human, it seems to me that the licensure/qualification procedures, the governing bodies, and the gaining of entry through “regulated procedures” [1] are necessary whereas the same cannot be said of design.

Nelson and Stolterman state that “everyone is designing most of the time,” which implies that licensure/qualification need not extend beyond birth. Is design, then, a birthright imposing no prerequisite knowledge or skills or tools in order to act (as a designer) other than the possession of life? Echoing the sentiments of the aforementioned authors, Klaus Krippendorff articulates it perfectly with the claim that, “Design is intrinsically motivating and a constitutionally human activity, it is not the privilege of a profession.” [3, emphasis added]

This does not mean that a design profession categorically does not, should not, or cannot exist in the same way as Law or Medicine. But it may have interesting implications for what that profession looks like and how we might go about licensing (or qualifying) individuals in order to be part of it. It may have implications for regulating procedures for admitting designers into the profession. It may have implications for using a term like “unified” to describe the profession.

What if Law or Medicine were constitutionally human activities? What if they were not the privilege of professions? How would they change?


[1] Heskett, J. (2005). Design: A very short introduction. Cary, NC: Oxford University Press.

[2] Nelson, H., & Stolterman, E. (2012). The design way: Intentional change in an unpredictable world. (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

[3] Krippendorff, K. (2000). Human-centered design; a cultural necessity. Unpublished manuscript, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.