Of the many meanings of the word design

March 10, 2017

I’ve always been surprised by the many meanings the words design or designer have in English. In French, the word design exists, but its meaning is really specific. The definition of the Larousse dictionnary is:

Nom masculin. Discipline visant à une harmonisation de l’environnement humain, depuis la conception des objets usuels jusqu’à l’urbanisme. Source

Literal translation: masculin name, discipline aiming to harmonize the human environment, from the conception of every day objects up to urbanism.

This acceptation of the word design is closely related to the Bauhaus movement that popularized the discipline in France.

In English, on the contrary, design is the common denominator for disciplines and professions or even concepts that are thought as separate in French. There is not one word in French that covers the extended variation of meanings design has in English. This is particularly visible when you look at all the possible traduction for the word design.

Design = intention or dessein as in intelligent design

Design = conception, when you make a plan to build an object

Design = création, when you actually build the object

Design = motif as in pattern

Design = croquis or ébauche as in sketch

It’s true also of the profession, or professions, of designer:

Visual or graphic designer = graphiste

Game designer = concepteur de jeu

UI or Interaction designer = ergonome

Web designer = concepteur de site webs

Interior designer = décorateur d’intérieur, architecte d’intérieur

Fashion designer = créateur de mode, grand couturier

Urban designer = urbaniste

The English language puts the emphasis on the characteristics shared by all these different aspects, chief among them is creativity. Knowing the many French terms though helps make a difference between the different stages of design, or the different domains where design can be applied, and distinguish those from a specific underlying philosophy that sustains the creation process.

By making the intimate link between design as an intent and design as creation so obvious, the English language supports the point that design has a fundamentally ethical component. My attention was drawn to this aspect by a tweet from Mike Monteiro @Monteiro.

You also find the ethical aspect in the French definition, through the ultimate objective of harmonization.

Indeed, whatever your job of designer is about, your design is born from your intent, and impacts people who use it, in both intended and unintended ways. The designer has the responsibility not only to do good design, in the sense of creating a piece of the highest aesthetic and functional quality, but also to design for good, as in to benefit users and society in general. It’s an ethical, personal sense of obligation. This doesn’t mean that all designers have this sense, or that all designers agree on what the greatest good is. Hence the comments in the Twitter conversation mentioned above pointing to “good” (think “effective”) design serving what we consider “evil” purposes (propaganda).

And that’s when UX comes in (or rather, has always been there).

Even with the deepest sense of moral obligation, with the best intentions in the world, you can design services or products with sometimes very bad, often unintended, consequences. Putting the emphasis on the user experience, doing honest and thorough user research, following a design thinking process, are some of the essential safeguards that the design profession built to stay on the right path.

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