Design’s core competency

What is a designer’s core competency?

This was the question put to me today by a respected award winning industrial designer. I found, after much thought, that it could only be design.

Put simply, taking away the jargon I learnt in business school, when we go to the market and see something that captures our interest, we very often purchase it. When choosing between two items that have the same or similar functions, if you do not have a budget restriction, or even then, can you always answer why you chose one over another?

And if you can, think about your answer. Did you say, because I liked the way it looked and felt? I liked the way it fit my hand? I liked it’s texture when I ran my hand over it? Did it appeal to your senses?

All of that is directly connected to the choices the designer made. To his taste, you could say, or his ‘eye’. Or her eye, I’m not too good at this gender neutral writing style.

And when something fits together just right, you look at it and go, ‘aaah’. No different that art really except for the crucial difference that most of design is for mass produced pieces, to be manufactured at a particular price point. Again, part of design’s core competency.

I could be wrong in this answer to the question, what do you say?

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6 Responses to Design’s core competency

  1. Thorny question, Niti. Is a designer’s core competence design or is it applying the design mindset and method to business problems? In which case, designing objects of desire is simply one good example.
    There’s a lot of upselling going on in design consulting in an effort to escape the terrible threat of commodification (is that even a word?). So we find ourselves drifting towards some vague, more lucrative-sounding definitions. Is it still design?
    I’m currently discussing this with one or two people and the discussion takes us into vaguer terms still. What if design is simply a business tool that creates the right conditions for an organization to become capable of continuous innovation and allows it to lead and profit instead of following and being marginal? And if it is, is that still design?

  2. niblettes says:

    A former professor of mine used to say, and quite proudly too, that design has no subject matter. He felt this inherent expansiveness, this decoupling from reality, was what would allow design to take over the world.
    This notion always bothered me. A discipline with no subject matter is like form with no substance–it’s a complete absurdity. And I think most people have an intuitive sense of this, so when you say that you are a designer, most will ask what you are a designer of–what is your subject matter.
    I think once design practice is contextualized within a give subject matter (clothing design, graphic design, environmental design, etc…) we can start talking about core competencies. While it may be inconvenient to some people’s megalomania, an explicit context is a crucial prerequisite to any meaningful disciplinary discussion.
    So what’s design’s core competency? Well, design in what context?

  3. niti bhan says:

    Tasos, it is due to similar discussions where it is so easy to wander into vaguer terms that led to my questioning, you frame the question well.
    Niblettes, you have a point, design in what context would be the first question – I debated that point first, as I almost wrote industrial design but then thought of all the disciplines. One wonders whether there is a reason for it being called ‘discipline’. What is the next question or is there an answer to this one?

  4. Paavani says:

    It’s a good question that designer ask to ownself numbers of times and discuss among the group. Still seek for more precise answer, a more practical sort of.

  5. Rita Patel says:

    While thinking about this question, I came across this bit about/from Donna Karan – a designer’s take on it. For me, someone who has never studied design (or art), it is inspiring and at times reaffirming as I continue to my create and (thankfully (sell).
    DONNA KARAN was born to be a designer and she fought against failure
    to be one. “They said if I was going to be an illustrator, I’d go to
    the Fashion Institute of Technology, and if I was going to be a
    fashion designer, I’d go to Parsons,” she told an audience at the
    Parsons New School for Design. “So I went to Women’s Wear Daily and
    asked them, ‘Could I have a summer job?’ I was dismissed very quickly.
    [The head of WWD] says, ‘My darling, you just absolutely do not know
    how to sketch. So I highly recommend you choose another field.’ Well,
    I was mortified about that… because I really thought I was a brilliant
    illustrator, as I still do.” Having subsequently failed a course in
    draping at Parsons, Karan dropped out and worked for Anne Klein before
    launching her own label in 1984. She was awarded a bachelor’s degree
    from the school in 1987 and officially unveiled the Donna Karan
    Professorship in Fashion Design, the value of which was not disclosed,
    at her open discussion with its dean, Paul Goldberger, last week. “You
    can’t make a designer… I think you’re born to design,” she said. “It’s
    a gift. But what is a designer? How do you create a designer? How do
    you help support a designer? How do you allow that which is inside of
    you innately to come to fruition? Well, that’s where we have
    teachers.” (April 25 2006, AM)

  6. Well, at the risk of actually having an opinion, I may be starting to agree with Niti and Niblettes. The magic fairy dust of design (and consequently the core competence) is actually design. For this to make any kind of sense, you need to picture it where it belongs; context in other words. The context is described by what is produced; product design produces designed products for example.
    And applying this “designer” mindset and method to processes, business and whatever else? Well, that’s powerful stuff but it ain’t design no more.
    So, Niti, I would say the next question is whether designers should be designing or whether they should be using their skills in all these other areas. I’m guessing that the answer is both, they should just remember what they’re best at.

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