Design disciplines: What’s the difference?

Many organizations are working to become “design driven.” The Design Management Institute (DMI) latest Design Value Index in 2015 showed that over the last 10 years, design-led companies have outperformed the S&P by 211%. Hopefully, your organization is working to build out your design capabilities, either internally or through strategic partnerships. However, for many leaders, there is some confusion around the design disciplines available and the problems each excels in. In this Formulations Blog post, we gather the definitions of nine types of designers and show where each fits into your overall business strategy.

There are many ways to define the role of a designer. The broadest possible definition of a “designer” is someone who makes conscientious choices for a desired outcome. Put more elegantly by famed designer Charles Eames,

One could describe Design as a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.

…and according to DMI,

Simply put, design is a method of problem solving.  Whether it is an architectural blueprint, a brochure, the signage system at an airport, a chair, or a better way to streamline production on the factory floor – design helps solve a problem.

But with definitions like this, virtually anyone can be a designer and any role can be design. The methodology of design thinking embraces that. Further, we believe you don’t need a trip to art school to think like one. As we explored in How to Solve Problems like a Designer, design thinking is a process that focuses on defining a problem, thinking of many solutions, iteration and refinement before selecting a solution that fulfills the requisite criteria. Therefore, design thinking places a deep emphasis on understanding users and their needs to ensure solutions work for the user.

Another cause of confusion over the term design is the explosion of design specialties over the last several years. Within organizations, traditionally you might meet product designers who help to decide how a thing looks and functions. Turn a corner, and you might find graphic designers working to make information clear and understandable. More recently you might meet UX/UI designers who work on digital products, and interfaces. Additionally, you might meet service designers, experience designers, business designers, and strategy designers. So what do all these folks do? We’ve collected the definitions of nine common design disciplines from Wikipedia into one handy guide:


9 Common Design Disciplines


Strategic Design

Strategic design is the application of future-oriented design principles in order to increase an organization’s innovative and competitive qualities. This design discipline is about applying some of the principles of traditional design to “big picture” systemic challenges like business growth, health care, education, and climate change. It redefines how problems are approached, identifies opportunities for action, and helps deliver more complete and resilient solutions.”


Organization Design

“Organization design or architecture of an organization as a metaphor provides the framework through which an organization aims to realize its core qualities as specified in its vision statement. It provides the infrastructure into which business processes are deployed and ensures that the organization’s core qualities are realized across the business processes deployed within the organization.”


Experience Design

Experience design (XD) is the practice of designing products, processes, services, events, omni-channel journeys, and environments with a focus placed on the quality of the user experience and culturally relevant solutions.”


Business Process Management

Business process management (BPM) is a discipline in operations management that uses various methods to discover, model, analyze, measure, improve, optimize, and automate business processes. BPM focuses on improving corporate performance by managing business processes.”


Service Design

Service design is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between the service provider and its customers. This design discipline may function as a way to inform changes to an existing service or create a new service entirely.”


Product Design

Product design is 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. Their evolving role has been facilitated by digital tools that now allow designers to communicate, visualize, analyze and actually produce tangible ideas in a way that would have taken greater manpower in the past.”


Communication Design

Communication design is a mixed discipline between design and information-development which is concerned with how media intervention such as printed, crafted, electronic media or presentations communicate with people. A communication design approach is not only concerned with developing the message aside from the aesthetics in media, but also with creating new media channels to ensure the message reaches the target audience.”


User Experience Design

User experience design (UX, UXD, UED or XD) is the process of enhancing user satisfaction with a product by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction with the product. This design discipline encompasses traditional human–computer interaction (HCI) design, and extends it by addressing all aspects of a product or service as perceived by users.”


Interface Design

User interface design (UI) or user interface engineering is the design of user interfaces for machines and software, such as computers, home appliances, mobile devices, and other electronic devices, with the focus on maximizing usability and the user experience. The goal of user interface design is to make the user’s interaction as simple and efficient as possible, in terms of accomplishing user goals (user-centered design).”


A few observations:


1. Few problems fall solely into one design discipline’s skill set.

Even a basic user interface problem has elements of communication design and experience design. Further, strategic design, and product or service design can be applied as well. The lines are blurry.


2. Most designers are comfortable in more than one discipline.

You will often find teams that brand themselves as something specific, like UX/UI designers. But even they can often be flexible. That same UX/UI team might also function as product designers or communication designs when needed.


3. Define design disciplines by the problems they solve (not the technical skills or expertise needed.)

Some problems are systemic, meaning they touch many parts of an organization or components in overlapping and often unexpected ways. Other problems are more discrete, they are contained as a single component with minimal inputs and outputs to other components. Additionally, some problems are abstract, dealing with theoretical and invisible things like ideas, knowledge, perception, and the future. Other problems are tangible, focusing on physical (or digital) things that can be seen, quantified, and exist today.


Understanding the Design Disciplines


To understand how these disciplines fit together, we’ve created a Boston Box diagram. Our chart plots four high-level questions in each quadrant arranged on axes  of Abstract vs Tangible, and Discrete vs Systemic.


Mapping the design disciplines from the above list into the framework, we can see where each discipline excels:


Use this chart to find the correct design team to help you tackle your next big idea.