Some time ago I used a web application that underwent a major redesign. The new design was beautiful–far more artistic than the old design. Unfortunately, the redesign also removed some of the most useful features of the application, in addition to making other features harder to use. Forums were buzzing frustrated users who were finding it difficult to do their work.
I remember hearing one of the designers on the application speak at a conference. Afterward, I came away a sense of why the design seemed to have floundered. For him, the main purpose of design was to create something visually appealing. User experience seemed, if not secondary, at least satisfied by an exceptional visual design.
On another occasion (it might have been the same conference), I remember hearing someone say that design is communication. That seemed accurate, and certainly better than focusing only on aesthetics, but it still didn’t go far enough.
Later, I came across these two quotes which capture for me the essential purpose of design:
Design is not solely about making things aesthetically pleasing, although that is part of it. Design, at its core, is about solving problems. And whatever that problem is—from squeezing oranges to running faster to communicating effectively—designers strive to help their users solve their dilemma in the most convenient, simple, and elegant way. Essentially, designers focus on the experience, making it as beautiful and memorable as possible. (Nancy Duarte, slide:ology.)
[Design] comes to grips with the very essence of a problem and proceeds to develop a solution organically, from the inside out, as opposed to “styling,” which concerns itself largely with the distinctive mode of presentation or with the externals of a given situation. The design activity is based upon an understanding of the intrinsic principle of a given problem and its solution. (Hugh De Pree, quoted by Roger Martin in The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage.)
Solving problems. At the heart of it, that’s why we design!