Designers are an existential bunch. At every party – remember those? – idle chit-chat inevitably leads to the age-old question: What do you do? Ask a doctor, data scientist, or dog walker and they’ll answer confidently, while those listening nod their heads politely in understanding. Then, ask a designer about their job and notice how their pupils begin to dilate. They might even break out in a sweat. You see, simply saying you’re a designer invites further questioning – even the uninitiated know there’s more to the story. Today, design is an ambiguous word, meaning something different depending on who you’re asking, and the role of the designer is up for debate.
This fuzziness isn’t the designer’s fault. Name another profession that encompasses such a broad range of activities spanning media, scale,
and technical expertise (Fig. 1). Within any one of design’s many disciplines there are endless sub-categories: there’s typography within graphic design, haute couture within fashion design, and emoji-craft within web design. The closer you get to the edge, the deeper the hole becomes.
In the words of French philosopher Bruno Latour, the field of design, “has grown in comprehension – it has eaten up more and more elements of what a thing is...Secondly, it has grown in extension – design is applicable to ever larger assemblages of production.” 1 What design is and what can be designed are growing with no signs of slowing. Several factors are behind this rapid expansion. One angle revolves around innovation. When groundbreaking inventions revolutionize daily life – from the birth of the written word to the printing press and the internet – design is the hinge that joins theory and reality. And innovation is happening faster than ever – US annual patent applications have more than doubled in the past 20 years2. The second reason is accessibility. Through the internet, and more specifically, social channels like Instagram and TikTok, a wider public is learning about design and developing their own tastes. Design literacy is moving from niche audiences to the mainstream. As a result, there’s a growing expectation for everything, from sneakers to cities, to be designed.
A third lens is differentiation. Across sectors, companies looking to stand out turn to design. While this isn’t new, brands are dealing with an increasingly scarce resource: our attention. In response, design is being stretched across more and more touchpoints, forming complex systems that need to be coherent and captivating. Today, business strategy and brand strategy are completely intertwined – and design is the language of brands.
To further complicate things, designers working across disciplines is becoming more common. A designer may launch a magazine, drop a fashion collection, produce an opera, develop a video game, and build an art gallery without an ounce of confusion from their audiences (à la Elizabeth Diller or Virgil Abloh). The idea of design practice has shifted from specialization to sensibility. It’s less about mastery of a particular skill and more about the ideological tissue that connects an eclectic mix of projects, personal and client-driven. We’re living in the age of the multi-hyphenate.
No wonder designers struggle to form the right words to articulate who they are and what they do exactly. Putting yourself in a box seems antithetical to the ever-evolving, freeform spirit of the craft. As the defi-nitions of design and the designer continue to expand, the ways we talk about each have become more open-ended. Take for example the color-ful palette of language used to describe groups of designers, each with its own implications, tone and vibe:
Agency reminds one of ad agencies, which carries negative associations in certain design circles (designers don’t like to think of themselves as marketers). That said, the secondary definition of agency – having agency – suggests freedom and control.
Collective evokes both the art world and activism. It’s casual and communal, perhaps even experimental and cutting-edge. But collective also sounds less interested in clients (and budgets and schedules) and more focused on the next cool font family or tote bag drop.
Collaborative shifts the industry narrative from the monumental icons of the past to a more democratic vision of design. A valiant message that comes across a bit contrived.
Company and firm are both resolutely formal. They’re vague and transactional, suggesting a faceless organization that produces design seemingly from a void.
Consultancy foregrounds the client-designer relationship: we exist to provide expertise and services for your brand. Not to mention the similarity to management consultancies.
Office is neutral and professional. The term brings to mind a sterile environment where work happens efficiently and dispassionately.
Practice implies a theoretical or intellectual underpinning. This one’s for designers who take any given project as an opportunity to explore broader themes and ideas.
Partnership is the older brother of collective and collaborative. It speaks of commitment, and working side by side through good times and bad. It also highlights the hierarchy between partners and junior staff.
Studio is about craft and experimentation, aligning designers with artists. It suggests a creative space where wild ideas are flung around like paint on a canvas.
Workshop. Don’t use this unless you’re tightening some kerning with an allen wrench.
These terms are just the tip of the iceberg. They represent a field so diverse, multifaceted and subjective that words fail to capture its full scope. That said, design’s elasticity is also what makes it so alluring. Its lexicon is open for total reimagination, and with it, the potential to shift how we think about design. What we call a global brand consultancy today could very well become a post-disciplinary transmedia critical design guild tomorrow. So the next time you’re schmoozing with a stranger and they ask What do you do? remember that ambiguity is opportunity. The words are in your hands.