What do we really mean by design?

I have been told quite a couple of times not to use the word ‘design’ to describe what I do. Because the word has been so overused that it has become a meaningless word. It doesn’t help that everyone appears to be some kind of a designer these days. In the context of education, we often hear of folks who design videos, design lessons, design workshops… I remember there was a time when we produce videos, plan lessons and conduct workshops. Is ‘design’ merely a placeholder for ‘produce’, ‘plan’ and ‘conduct’? What do we really mean by “design”?

A quick google search surfaced two definitions resonated with me, each applying a different lens to the word, but which led to similar conclusions.

The first definition came from Todd Olson, a blogger who writes about design. He sought to attempt a definition of design as a discipline, which he considered to mean, “plan the creation of a product or service with the intention of improving human experience with respect to a specific problem.” [1] The second definition was from the Swedish Industrial Design Foundation, which defined design to be “a work process which has a user perspective and drives development based on your specific customers’ needs.” [2]

To me, design  in the context of education is to create with the intention to bring about a positive change for learners. And when I speak about learning design, I refer to the act of constructing a learning experience for students so that they can learn what they are supposed to. This typically involves addressing the following questions:

  • How can the students be primed for learning? What do they already know that would help them learn the new content or skill? How can this prior knowledge be activated? What would stop them from wanting to learn?
  • What should students be doing to learn? Which aspects of the learning experience would offer students opportunity to explore the topic or issue at hand? How much of the knowledge to be acquired can be constructed by the students themselves?
  • How much scaffold should the teacher provide? Which aspects of the learning experience would the students need help in? How much productive struggle can the students handle before they are discouraged?
  • How can learning resources and technology mediate the learning process? When it is helpful to incorporate ICT tools and media content? What purposes do these resources serve? How do they value add to both the learning process and outcomes?

These are no doubt tough questions, and you might even wonder, don’t we as educators think through these questions already when we plan our lessons? Prior to the use of the word “design” to describe what we do? Maybe, maybe not. That isn’t quite the point. The point here is that if we want to use “design” to describe what we do, then we mustn’t lose sight of the two inherent characteristics of design, which are intentionality toward positive change and human-centricity. Design not only describes our process, it is also evident in our product, reflecting both the creator’s intentions and thoughtful steering toward actualising these intentions. It underlies a concern with the human experience and an inherent focus on meeting (human) needs.

As I end off, I concede that this isn’t really a satisfactory exposition on what we mean by design, but I think it suffices in highlighting the challenges one might encounter when using the word. Particularly when you don’t quite agree with how I have chosen to interpret it. And quite possibly, there are many ways of defining and interpreting this word. As such, the next time we want to talk about design, it is best for us to start the conversation clarifying what each of us really mean when we say “design”.



  1. So, what is design anyway?
  2. What is design?

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