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Design thinking
Design thinking

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2 Design around us

Almost everything you see around you is designed; that is, it exists as a result of human thought about what is needed. As I sit in my office (Figure 1), I see a telephone, a cup, a desk light, a building opposite my window, a computer in front of me, the chair I am sitting on, and the clothes I am wearing. These are the obvious objects of design. However, there are less obvious things, too: the software I'm using to write this paragraph, the circuit boards in the computer (and the chips on the circuit board), the timeline I have on my whiteboard, the way I have organised the books on my shelves, the noticeboard where I've pinned up images, documents, lists and reminders. (And, of course, those images, documents, lists and reminders themselves.)

If I look out of my office window I can see natural things like trees, which you might think are definitely not designed. However, even these might be objects of design; trees might be positioned according to an overall plan, for example. Even the variety or look of trees might be a consequence of human intervention through propagation or pruning!

Described image
Peter Lloyd, 2009
Figure 1 A typical office scene

Activity 1 Design in an office

Look at the photo of the office above and list the things you see under three category headings:

  • things that are designed
  • things that look like they've been designed by the person using the office
  • things that are definitely not designed.


  • Things that are designed: It’s a long list! The windows, the window catches, the window opener, the desk light, the filing cabinets, speakers, the cup, the telephone, the calculator, the clock, etc.
  • Things that the office user has designed: This is not a long list! The noticeboard, the layout of the desk.
  • Things that are definitely not designed: Although you can’t see them in the photograph, you might have thought about things through the window, e.g. the sky or birds on the opposite building.

When I sit in my office, I can probably see about 1500 individual things that are designed (including things like books and magazines, but not including the sub-components of things).

Most of the things I have around me have been designed by others, but some have been designed by me. The layout of my room, for example, and the way I organise my work are both designed by me. The layout of the documents I've written and the way I've dressed is something that I've consciously done, too. In some respects I've designed without knowing about it!

Designer Design

If you ask most people what they think design is, they will probably mention something like the Dyson vacuum cleaner; something that looks a bit different from other things in the same category (in this case vacuum cleaners) and that probably claims to outperform them as well. The iPod is something else that people associate with design; something that looks good and performs differently. But, it’s not only objects that can have this ‘design’ cachet. A gleaming new building might be introduced as ‘designed by Frank Gehry' (for example), or a new fashion collection 'designed by Alexander McQueen’ (Figure 2).

Clockwise from top left Steven May / Alamy; WWD/Conde' Nast/Corbis; Tom Mackie / Alamy
Figure 2 Top left: an iPod; Bottom left: a building designed by Frank Gehry. Right: clothing by Alexander McQueen

This is what I call ‘Designer Design’; things that are produced to showcase design, and which are marketed and written about accordingly. (They usually have a price tag to match!) Several years ago there was a fashion trend for ‘designer’ jeans, which were styled individually, and that stood out from other types of jeans. The word ‘designer’ was being used to imply that these jeans had more value, possibly because they’d had the singular attention of one individual. In fact the word ‘design’ is used far more often than you might think.

Activity 2 ‘Design’ in print

Leaf through a newspaper or ‘weekend’ magazine and try to find where the word ‘design’ (or ‘designer’, ‘designing’, etc.) appears. For each case note down whether it is being used in a descriptive sense, describing a new project, for example, or whether it is being used in a marketing sense, to lend increased value to a product.


I found an article called ‘Clean lines for hospital fittings’:

  • ‘More than 70 designers have teamed up …’
  • ‘A lot of hospital furniture has nooks and crannies that are repositories for bugs, so the challenge was to design those out.’
  • ‘The [Design] council then called on designers to offer alternatives.’
  • ‘One team [was asked] to redesign a bedside chair.’

These suggest to me examples of where the word ‘design’ is being used in a descriptive sense, to indicate the activity that was carried out. ‘Design’ is not explicitly being used here to indicate that the things are more valuable because they have been designed.

Here is a very different example of something that I found. I was in a car park in Scotland when I noticed the word ‘DESIGN’ on this Ford Fiesta car door (Figure 3). This seems to be a clear case of where the word is being used to suggest extra value over a ‘normal’ Ford Fiesta.

Peter Lloyd, 2009
Figure 3 The word 'design' used to suggest enhanced value on a Ford Fiesta

Quiet Design

‘Designer Design’ sometimes puts people off engaging with design. It sometimes seems as if things have been ‘given’ to us by designers, rather than being something we participate in. Yet there is another side to design that I will call ‘Quiet Design’. By this I mean the kind of design that you or I might do to our personal space, or the things that are designed but go unnoticed. These are things that quietly improve our lives without us realising until we stop and think. One example is road design, where an improved junction or roundabout can significantly ease congestion, and with it, motorist stress. Another is something as simple as a new park bench in just the right place to provide a fabulous view.

Quiet Design is much more prevalent than Designer Design, and impacts almost every aspect of our lives. That's not to say that Quiet Design isn’t designed by professionals, most of the time it is, but sometimes it’s not referred to explicitly as design. We might better describe Quiet Design as being the products of design thinking.

A good example of a Quiet Design thinker is Frank Blackmore, who had the idea of the traffic roundabout. His design thinking affected the whole country (and many more), yet he is little known.

Activity 3 Optional reading

Frank Blackmore died in 2008. If you have time, you may wish to read his obituary [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] to see how influential he was.