What Does “Designing” Mean Anyway?

When I was a freshman in architecture school, I honestly still didn’t know what the heck it meant to “design”.

Sure, we are already in the thick of many design projects for our different classes – design a hat made out of this, a workspace for this person, a house for this client. But going into all those endeavors half-blind to what I was really doing was limiting and counter-productive.

To me, the conception of what designing specifically meant was a vague animal. The first thing that popped into my head when I heard design this, or design that was, “Okay, how to make this thing pretty?”. 

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I remember when a high school friend asked me in a small reunion “What does designing mean, exactly?”, and I was put in an awkward situation. I said a whole bunch of somethings as a reply that really meant “I don’t actually know bro or maybe I do but i’m not sure”. I was a designer for goodness sake, but I didn’t know what I was really doing.

Do you have a clear idea of what it means to design?


Today, I’d like to reach out to those secretly clueless freshmen and offer you some enlightenment. I’m going to demonstrate a perspective on design I wish I knew a long time ago. It would have saved me a whole lot of confusion and really boosted my productivity in my younger years.

I’m going to demonstrate this perspective through a simple exercise. It’ll be very simple, and all I ask is you be honest with yourself.

I want you to design a box in your head, in 30 seconds. Three simple words: “Design A Box“.

Close your eyes and start now. Make it as vivid as possible. Don’t scroll down until you’re done designing your box.



Strong body

… Are you done? Alright. I’d like to make a prediction here. For 90% of the younger people that will undergo the exercise, their initial reaction will be to imagine a cube in a different color, or texture.


And perhaps after that, they’ll think, “What else can I do? I know, I’ll embellish it somehow. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Hoo hah!”


They’ll take a step back, a bit unsure, and sort of admire their work as if to say, “I’ve done it! I have designed the box!”


Not so fast, good sirs and madams. If the above approach hits close to home as to how you went about the exercise, I’d like to offer you a fresh, more effective perception. I’m going to show you six ways you could have designed the box, out of the infinitely many ways out there. Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to rethink your previous thought process.

Before I start, I’d like to voice out two fundamentals:

1.) Designing starts with you revisiting your conception of whatever it is you’ve decided to design. What is a box, and how do you perceive a box?

2.) If the object of your design has no envisioned purpose, perhaps you’re not really designing – but just imagining a piece of emptiness.

Related: How Do Architects Think? – An Eye Opener

Is that all well and good? Alright, very quickly, here are my six different alternate approaches in “designing a box“. Each approach was guided by a different purpose and reason for being. As you go through them, think about the different contexts, users, visions and aspirations that are the reason behind the proposals below.

APPROACH 1: “I want a box that I can keep my watch in, and I want to be able to admire it from a distance”.


Who said the box couldn’t be operable?

APPROACH 2: “I want a box that will make my little daughter smarter, and at the same time be able to keep my brain sharp in my old age”.


Who said the box couldn’t be made of many smaller boxes?

APPROACH 3: “I want a box that will take care of my granddaughter when she sleeps”.


Who said the box had to be fully enclosed?

APPROACH 4: “I want a box that will take care of ME while I sleep”.


Who said the box couldn’t be rectangular?

APPROACH 5: “I want a box that will take me to greater heights”.


Who said there couldn’t be anything inside the box?

APPROACH 6: “I want a box that will be a sanctuary for four tech-savvy boys, and at the same time be the start of a potential community”.


You’ll notice the approaches got larger and larger in scale and complexity, and were all guided by different needs, considerations, and aspirations. Such is the art and science of designing. By this sixth approach, we now have a fully modular dormitory room and hallway that can be replicated side by side, which considered user anthropometrics, activities and movement patterns, structural systems, light and ventilation, mechanical cooling systems, storage, and a whole lot more.

Related: Know The Difference: How Architects and Engineers Are Wired Differently.





…. And to think, it all started with revisiting three simple words: “Design A Box”.

Mother of God

This is what makes designers so crucial to society: We see life not as it is, but how it should be.

So the next time somebody tells you something along the lines of “But design is like, making something pretty right?”, puff out your chest, keep your head held high, and like a true-blue architecture student proclaim confidently to the heavens:

What is design

You might also like: How do Architects contribute to Nation-building? 

Keep well, and keep designing your life.


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Did you like what you just read? There’s more where that came from.


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