Design is a kind of making; the making of a functional approximation of a thing to be made. A "design" exists in this strange ontological state as "being as potential." A design is an approximation of a possible future. But a design does not find its full actualization until it is made. Until is no longer exists as a possible future but finds itself embodied in the stuff of Creation — earth, metal, wood, stone — through the sweat and physical effort of human labor.
Making is a kind of "bringing into being." An opportunity to participate in the ongoing act of creation. To be co-Creator.
To make something is to enter into a mutual and respectful relationship with what is possible and what could be. To impose order and establish meaningful relationship between materials and objects to produce a thing that has use, purpose and meaning.
When one designs one engages in an activity that is goal oriented (teleological). Aristotle writes that every action possesses an end toward which it is aimed — the act of the ship-builder is to build ships, and so one. So it is with designing.
The quality of a design solution is established by how well it meets, exceeds, or misses these expectations. Normative expectations for designing include solving for demonstrable criteria and inducing an intended quality of experience. Demonstrable criteria include meeting or exceeding functional and performance criteria, that is that there is a reasonable expectation that a design is capable of producing an approximation of a thing that functions as desired (within an acceptable range) and is technically competent, That is, it can be made. Experiential qualities include making an approximation of a thing to be made that induces a sense of coherence (it makes sense) and intended aesthetic experience (aesthesis) or "atmosphere." Meeting functional/technical criteria and inducing experiential qualities are necessary for a successful design solution. Even so, while the functional and technical criteria of a design problem are important, it is the experiential qualities that determine drive the design process and in the end determine how the design solution will be experienced.
A designer needs to master a vast and interdisciplinary domain of declarative/conceptual knowledge; procedural/heuristic knowledge; and strategic/tacit knowledge. The designer needs to know about the qualities and properties of materials, structure, mechanical and human environment systems, historical precedent, theory, cultural, economic and environmental factors, management and project delivery procedures, etc. Its a lot to know. Impossible to master all at once.
A designer needs to have developed methods and methodologies, procedures and heuristics for solving complex problems. While there is no "right way" of solving a design problem, there are some ways that seem to work, that provide a reliable way of approaching a design problem. A basic heuristic (methodology) is to define the problem space —> frame/re-frame the problem —> generate a solution path —> represent/evaluate/represent —> make an externalized functional approximation of the thing to be made —> assess and refine —> actualize.
Most of design knowledge is situated knowledge, that is, a designer learns how to solve design problems by trying to solve particular problems. With extended experience, and reflection on what works and does not work, the designer develops the ability to assess a design problem, consider multiple ways of approaching it, and choose a method or methodology that has the greatest likelihood to lead to a solution to the problem within an acceptable range, that is the designer acquires strategic knowledge. As the designer becomes more proficient, this kind of "know how" becomes less and less deliberate, and more and more "intuitive." The design cannot explain why or what s/he does, s/he just does and it usually works. The designers knowledge is embodied. S/he knows more than s/he can say.
Most often, and normally, the designer is thought of as an individual person. And while this is true to some extent, it is more complex than that. The act of designing does not begin with the signing of a contract for professional design services. The act of design begins when some one recognizes that "it could be otherwise." Designing begins when someone is sitting at a cafe, looking out the window, sees a vacant lot, and wonders what could be built there. Designing begins when someone walking around the office thinks, "there must be a better way." When someone is using a tool and thinks, "if only they put this here rather than there." Design begins with the consideration of a possible future. In most cases the consideration of a possible future stops there. But sometimes, someone, for whatever reason, decides to take it further, to test the idea, explore the possibilities, determine if it is possible. It is then that the professional designer might enter the design process. The job of the professional design is to help to discover what the desired possible future might be like. In so doing, other people join in as co-designers: technical consultants, developers, fabricators, even lawyers. All these work together, on collaboration, each bringing her/his own kind of expertise to the table.
The challenge for the designer then is to produce an approximation of a thing to be made that embodies the cumulative vision, desires and expertise of those sitting at the the table, and often anticipating the expectations of those who never get invited to the table. But approximations of a possible future always start out as internal/mental representations. We imagine a possible future. Then we have to encode a mental representation somehow, and then find a way to transfer the mental representation from one mind to the other with minimal loss of information. This is very difficult. How can one person see what another only sees in his mind. Methods for the transfer of mental representations include conversation (language), drawings, models, animation, gesture, etc.
Drawings are externalized representations of a mental approximation. They function to communicate an idea and to provide feedback for the one generating the representation. When one externalizes a mental representation one sees what is possible. Mental representations are abstract constructs composes of electro-chemical neural impulses, that are not beholden to the laws of gravity or physics. These representations are vague, often leaving out critical information for the sake of computational efficiency or lack of information. A mental representation of an idea can often seem to solve a problem perfectly. Often it only when one tries to externalize it, and communicate it to other that one "sees" the problems. This phenomenon should not be thought of as somehow deficient. It is an essential and often times a creative aspect of the design process.
Designing is opportunistic. When a mental image is externalized new opportunities are discovered, and preconceptions are tested. These externalizations facilitate the design process, and allow other collaborators to actively participate in the design process. The tragedy is when a designer, as an individual, limits her/his understanding and use of these representations for one way communication: "Here's my finished idea, how do you like it?" This approach has the unintended effect of excluding legitimate members of the design team, squashing ideation, and missing opportunities to improve the design.