Defining the design thing, usefully and boringly

It’s good when a word is used and we all understand the same thing. It helps us do things better.

Outlining what we mean when we talk about the various areas of our design practice allows us to better talk about our craft. Talking about our craft better allows us to better improve our craft and better deliver well designed products.

These are what I mean when I use various terms to describe different areas of design practice. You might have a different take, that’s cool, words are slippery, ambiguous, and semantic drift is real. You probably practice design in different way to me so what’s useful for you might be different too. But if you find these helpful then that’s good.

If the are boring or obvious, thats good. I don’t want to discuss the meaning of design. (I mean I do, but only over a pint, not at work.) These meanings are practical – useful for teams delivering digital products – not theoretical. There’s lots of theory around, but here I’m interested in terms that are simple, easily understood, and easily used.

A principle I’ve taken is that the definitions focus on the useful difference between the terms. When we say ‘Service Design’ what is it that’s different from when we say ‘Experience Design’? That difference is the interesting bit – what makes it worth using the different terms in the first place.

My boring definitions

A design

A design is a (usually) visual description of something that enables that thing to be created.


Designing is the activity of creating a design.


A designer is a person trained, practiced in, and employed to create designs. (Some expanded thoughts about why this even needs saying)

Experience design or UX design

Experience design is the design of the arrangement of every touchpoint that a user has with a service or product.

Service design

Service design is the design of the service that delivers, supports and enables every touchpoint that that use user has with a product or service.

Interface design

Interface design is the design of the digital interfaces a user sees when using a product or service.

Interaction design (IxD)

Interaction design is the design of what happens when the user interacts with the interface.

Note: There are two possible meanings. Originally coined in the mid-80s interaction design meant something more like experience design, but I don’t see the term being used like that in professional workplaces.

Information architecture

Information architecture is the structuring and arrangement of how users perceive information and data in a service or product.

Visual design

Visual design is design of how the product or service’s interfaces will look.

Design thinking

Design Thinking is where designers collaboratively work with non-designers to help them think like designers to solve business or product challenges, particularly in areas where design isn’t traditionally used.

Some thoughts/context

  1. These are parts of the professional practice of design, not job titles or project descriptions. You can’t to any of them without also touching on some of the others.
  2. Designing a thing is a single problem that blends many design skills. There’s big overlap between all of this. You can’t do one of these skills without engaging with others.
  3. My professional practice is rooted in delivering digital products and services. This will colour my view of design and what’s included in the list.
  4. I hate umbrella-definitions of design, they aren’t useful. They are land-grab gatekeeping.
  5. I’m writing this as it’s useful for me to put this stuff down on paper and be able to refer to it. I’ll improve and update it over time. Get in touch if you have any suggestions or questions.