Seven Components of Design: A Definition For All Storytellers

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Seven Components of Design
Emil Villumsen

By Emil Villumsen

Co-founder of Craft

Creativity

‘Design’ is an incredibly broad term and there is no widely accepted unifying definition. Yet, understanding what the process and product aspects of design are can be very valuable to everyone trying to tell a story and managing a creative process.

Here I’ll unfold a definition based on design theory. It should leave you feeling empowered as a storyteller slash designer, knowing the cogwheels of what you’re already doing on a daily basis, yet with a better sense of what the act of designing actually consists of.

Seven components

Here’s a great breakdown of ‘a design’:

“(noun) a specification of an object, manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints”

The definition is by Ralph & Wand (2009). Let’s dive into each part. But first give it another read — it becomes clear that understanding each part is necessary when designing.

Object

So, “…specification of an object…”. You’re designing something. Whatever you’re doing it should end with an output of some sort. Otherwise you’re staying in an endless limbo of ideas and half-finished products. It can be an object (say, a short film) but also an experience (say, a two day festival) or an abstract concept (rules for an RPG game).

Tip: Think about yourself as designing something even though it’s not a “regular” design like a poster or other art pieces. You’re also designing your own creative process, your career or even your morning breakfast. This way you’ll take smart decisions and consider yourself as the one in charge of constructing everything from everyday tasks to big projects.

Agent

“…manifested by an agent…”. A design has to spring from a subject of some source: you most likely!

Tip: Being aware of you as the manifesting power can make you contemplate what values you’re bringing into the design. The ideas for the design is coming from a person, you, who is filled with experiences and prejudices. When you identify those biases you can then choose to enhance or challenge them.

Accomplish goals

A design should do something. Serve a purpose.

Tip: You might start out with a wish to work with a specific style or a specific person, but somewhere down the line you should be very clear about what the intention of what you’re doing is on the receiver end. Should it entertain, solidify, challenge, convince or encourage? This is also true for every scene, every character design and any other manifestation, not just for the overall project.

In a particular environment

You’re not creating something in a vacuum. You’re always located in a deeply complex grid of values, norms and physical surroundings.

Tip: You’ve thought about the values you’re bringing into the proces. Now think about what environment you’re designing in. What is your school or company like? Is it based on something you can use in communicating the message of what you’re designing, by understanding how your target audience might be in a different environment?

A set of primitive components

This is simply fancy talk for using stuff at your disposal to realise the design project.

Tip: Make a list of all the resources you have available. Leave it on your table and revisit it once in a while — perhaps you spot something or someone who can be of help to your current design problem.

Satisfying a set of requirements

Programmers typically work with sets of well specified requirements. Design processes are more abstract and exposed to external factors. You can’t “compute” everything ahead of you from day one. But you know this :).

Tip: What you can do though is try. Be very explicit about the success criteria of what you’re doing. When is the project realised? When are your personal and the team’s goals realised? It shouldn’t damage your creative vein or artistic endeavours, but shine a path so you can move ahead with a clear mind.

Subject to constraints

Has to be delivered in two weeks, needs to be a live action video, can only be made in clay. A design process is full of limitations.

Tip: There is always a headwind in a design process. If it doesn’t feel like it, perhaps you should create it yourself? Constraints have been documented to spark creativity, like Twitter’s limitation of 140 characters. Instead of turning anxious over the constraints, use them to your benefit.

So we put a label on it, now what?

You’ve identified all aspects of what you’re about to go through. Grab a pen and paper and jot down a few lines for all seven components.

By doing this you’re already way ahead. Revisit it when necessary.