The Think: What Is Design?

When I conduct workshops, sometimes I am asked questions relating to design, the creative process, and intellectual property issues.

If you make something - a home tinkerer, a hobbyist jeweler, or a sewing fanatic, it's sometimes confusing to know when you can call something a design (in the first place), and specifically, your design.

If you've sewed an outfit at home or made a pair of DIY earrings fashioning it after something you saw online using different materials from the original, is that your design? And if the results are different enough from the original (whether achieved on purpose or not), then is that your design?

This is what Wikipedia has to say about product design:

Product design as a verb is to create a new product to be sold by a business to its customers.[1] A very broad concept, it is essentially the efficient and effective generation and development of ideas through a process that leads to new products.[2] Thus, it is a major aspect of new product development.

Due to the absence of a consensually accepted definition that reflects the breadth of the topic sufficiently, two discrete, yet interdependent, definitions are needed: one that explicitly defines product design in reference to the artifact, the other that defines the product design process in relation to this artifact.

Product design as a noun: the set of properties of an artifact, consisting of the discrete properties of the form (i.e., the aesthetics of the tangible good and/or service) and the function (i.e., its capabilities) together with the holistic properties of the integrated form and function.[3]

Product design process: the set of strategic and tactical activities, from idea generation to commercialization, used to create a product design. In a systematic approach, product designers conceptualize and evaluate ideas, turning them into tangible inventions and products. The product designer's role is to combine art, science, and technology to create new products that people can use [...]

The keywords from the above definition are "systematic approach", "evaluate", and "invention".

If you've ever wondered whether what you've made is a design at all, and specifically, your design, ask yourself:

1) EVALUATE - Did my 'thing' solve a design problem? 

2) SYSTEMATIC APPROACH - Did I use a systematic approach in coming up with a solution to the problem?

3) INVENTION - Is the 'thing' I made my own invention? 

Let's delve deeper into each of these three questions.

1) First of all, did you solve a problem with your 'thing'? If the answer is yes, did it solve a design problem. If you've taken something that already exists on the market but have made it cheaper by removing components or details, you did not solve a design problem. You may have solved a business problem but not a design problem. 

2) When solving the design problem, did you use a series of different approaches? Did you experiment to see which of those approaches gave you the most elegant solution?

3) Invention is a sticky topic. One could argue that nothing is original and that everything being made today has been made before. I would say that your design has to add value to the current solution.

Chef Versus Cook:

An easy way to think about it is with a chef vs. cook analogy. Think of the difference between a chef and a cook. A chef designs a recipe. A cook follows a recipe. A chef tests his/her ideas using different ingredients and cooking methods and comes up with an original dish.

A cook follows that recipe. A cook will often switch out an ingredient or adjust cooking time according to his/her environment but he/she is not the designer of the dish.


Let's say you've sewed yourself a skirt following instructions and a pattern you got online. Even if you've used the most unique fabric and your stitching skills are impeccable, the skirt you've made is not your design. Taking this one step further, if you've made the same skirt but have removed a pocket, the skirt you've made is still not your design because you've simply subtracted without adding anything back of value. But, if you've taken that same pattern and made the skirt reversible. Now that's your design.

And, if you were able to then figure out how to make the zipper and pockets reversible too - congratulations -  that's great design!

If you think you've come up with an original design, here's the official Singapore government website for your intellectual property protection:

'til next time!