✊⚒️️🧰 Labor Day Sale! Get 30% off Sep. 4-7!
Matt Olpinski Company Website

Uncovering the True Meaning of Design

Get answers to 100+ of your biggest freelancing questions
Download my FREE 52-page book!

Before I started writing this article, I decided to see what the dictionary said about the word “design”. What I found was very interesting. When used as a verb, the definition of the word “design” has no visual connotation whatsoever:

Design (v): To form or conceive in the mind and intend for a definite purpose; to plan and fashion skillfully.

When we use the word “design”, chances are it doesn’t translate the way we, as designers, often think it should. Too often, design is perceived as only being visual, but that’s only partially true. Hopefully, it’s obvious that there are different types of designers. Furniture designers, graphic designers, clothing designers, hair designers (stylists), home designers (architects), music designers (audio engineers), etc. But these are all observable types of design. What about the design you can’t see?

At Dumbwaiter Design, my previous employer, we actually dedicate more time to the invisible types of design than the visible. We design strategies. We design experiences. We design code. We design the way our designs will work. From our perspective, the most valuable parts of your project are the invisible ones. You’ll see wireframes and visual designs of your website or interface. You will also see a tastefully crafted, top-notch website when we are done. But the invisible design is the backbone of the visible.

Their developers are the most brilliant, creative people I know, but their design often happens below the surface. Sure, you get to use the incredible custom CMS they will build for you, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Before you can use it, they had to design it using code, which you will never see. They had to design the overall code structure as well as the way the different parts of the code behave with each other. The database architecture/data structure needs to be designed based on the site content and outcome of the strategy phase. Obviously, they can see the code they are writing, but I’m deeming this “invisible” design because the client and the end-user will never see the entire iceberg.

We also design strategies and experiences. Perhaps you’ve heard of user experience design, or “UX” for short. This often manifests itself in the form of wireframes, but we also design flowcharts, site maps, use-cases, and user personas before delivering visible, tangible wireframes. Again, while some of these are visual solutions, they are almost never seen by the end-user and only temporarily by the client. It’s all a part of our process. We go through many iterations of our ideas in addition to our designs. Designing a strategy means crafting a foundation and a clear path towards an end goal or set of end goals.

Design is a craft and to design is to craft. The Dumbwaiter staff does this on a regular basis. We craft our conversations every day via emails, meetings, and phone calls. Ultimately, we organically craft the relationships we have with our clients. The web-industry is largely based on referrals so it is vitally important that we carefully uphold and maintain outstanding relationships with everyone we partner with on a project. We believe that this is one of the most important aspects of design on any given project.

Consider the meaning of the word “design” and even when constrained to the web industry, it’s meaning stretches far past the boundaries of the visible. This is the unique nature of our careers as designers and developers as well as what design really means to us and to every industry that has a foundation in design.

Note: This is a post I wrote while serving as the Interactive Art Director at Dumbwaiter. However, I use the same strategies in my freelance career, which is why I have republished it to my personal blog. The more exposure this can get, the better. You should also pay Dumbwaiter a visit.

About Matt Olpinski
Matt runs his own web design and development company Matthew’s Design Co. and teachers thousands of freelancers how to succeed through his personal blog and newsletter.
Get over 100+ answers to your biggest freelancing questions.
101 answers to common freelancing questions — even the ones you didn’t think to ask yet. Gain confidence and clarity as you pursue a life of self-employment.
Free when you join my newsletter. No spam. Unsubscribe any time.