Chris Basham

Defining design

By the encouragement and guidance of my parents, I grew up experimenting in the illustrative arts. My childhood companions were sketchbooks and assortments of pencils, markers, and measuring tools. Graphite stained the edges of my hands, and eraser shavings amassed in the unsuspecting carpet.

Unaware of the transformation, these creative endeavors inched me toward proficiencies in the graphic arts and eventually a career in interaction design. It’s taken much of this time for me to distinguish between design and art, and more importantly, to define for myself the work I craft as a designer.

Art is about expression and interpretation. It imagines what may never be. It gives form to what could never be described. It symbolizes and assigns meaning. It unites and stirs controversy. It entertains and decorates. It is informative, motivational, and persuasive.

In contrast, design is about purpose and clarity. It manifests what should be. It gives ability to what is incapable. It structures and illuminates meaning. It completes and solves. It cares and dignifies. It is altruistic, honest, and unobtrusive.

While design is about many things, both similar and distinct from art, I gauge design work based on how it aligns with this succinct definition:

Design is renderable, insightful intentionality.


The design should exist and can exist in the real world.

Something that should not exist but does is immoral. It harms the world, instead of bettering it. Instead, designs that should exist:

If a concept is incapable of existing in the real world, it is fiction or futurism. Because it is not capable of being created, be it because of physical, technical, cultural, economical, practical reasons, it is not capable of introducing good into the world, and therefore, it is not yet design.


The design is based on research and understanding of what is.

Without research and understanding, a concept is not grounded in reality. It becomes directionless. There are no guardrails to correct it when astray. The voiceless have no advocate. Ill-conceived decisions are made at whim.

With research and understanding, a concept can confidently become reality. It is surefooted and self-corrective. The voiceless are welcomed and heard. Bravely facing the right questions lead to humbling and rewarding results.


The design purposefully causes change toward what should be.

Without intent, little non-decisions culminate in noticeable carelessness and disregard. Reasoning is legitimized with shrugs, excuses, and irresponsibility. Mediocrity is the norm.

With intent, every possible action is given attention and deliberate choices are made. No decision is too small to be discussed or challenged. Every decision is supported with sound rationale. Craftsmanship is the norm.


To judge if something is renderable, insightful, and intentional (i.e. designed), it must answer true to these questions:

  1. Should and can this exist?
  2. Is the rationale for every detail based on research and understanding?