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Ok so… “I am a designer”

Design-thinking, Psychology

Image by Flickr user Krystle Kibler; used under Creative Commons Attribution licence

But what does that even mean? Think of the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear “designer”. Some people would say that I can draw pretty things, or that I have an amazing sense of fashion, or just that I am one of those ‘creative/crazy’ type that “plays” for a living. However there is much more to design than just fashion and pretty things.

I have been calling myself a designer for the past eight years, and one thing I have learnt during this time is that this simple statement can mean very different things for different people in different places. What is more important, I’ve learnt to my regret, that it usually never means what I intended. Indeed, designer can refer to a very broad range of activities: going from the more traditional side with architecture, graphic, fashion, interior, product and even engineering design; to the newer forms of web, information, interaction, service and process design. And to tell you the truth, I have started making a deliberately long pause after stating “I am a designer”. This way I can enjoy those few seconds of staring at blank expressions who try to figure out if I design complicated airplane turbines, colourful websites, haute-couture dresses, or (on the very rare occasion) innovative experiences.

For people working in the design environment this comes as no shock. Design has existed as a discipline for over 60 years, but there still seems to be an enormous gap between what we designers think we do, and what people recognize we can do.

For the general public we either do ‘pretty things’ or we make ‘functional things’, with the constant being that we do ‘things’. However, as we designers see it, the ‘things’ are just incidental, and what is most important for design is people. What an interaction designer and a fashion designer have in common is the way we approach a project, always revolving around the user. For every ‘thing’ designed there is a specific user in mind, one who has particular intentions, desires, tastes, beliefs and capabilities. In this sense, designers are really in the business of understanding what people like, how they think, what will make their life easier and how we can influence their attitudes and behaviours through different means.

So if you think of it, The Behavioural Design Lab is a perfect place to bring together the broad range of activities that the design activity can involve. And it does this by bringing forward a rigorous study of the thing that unites all the different design activities: human behaviour. This is what makes the Behavioural Design Lab such a great place to tackle big issues, because by joining forces from the practical side of design with the science of understanding behaviour, we can magnify the chances of generating a serious impact.

Designers are pretty good at thinking creatively and ‘outside of the box’. We do not take things for granted and nothing is set in stone, and this is what makes innovation go hand by hand with design. We think of ourselves as mediators and influencers, defining how people interact, perceive and give sense to the world that surrounds them. We want to be these invisible hands behind everything people do in their day-to-day life, and to some extent we are.

However let’s face it; we have no real idea about what people think. Most times we base our whole action on mere intuitions or whatever bits and pieces we can draw from psychology and social sciences to justify why, whatever it is we do, works. And don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of observation and a rigorous project approach to design that guarantees success. However we cannot deny that most times we designers are working ‘in the dark’.

The knowledge generated from behavioural science can give design exactly what it needs to be able to maximise its power, by really understanding how people act and applying the creative project solving approach to influence it.

I can honestly say, that I look forward to seeing what we can achieve with the Behavioural Design Lab. Because, in a very naïve and over exaggerated tone that reflects just how excited this makes me, “the sky is the limit!”

Who knows maybe next time I say “I am a designer” the response I will get is “Oh! So you transform the way people behave!”…

One can only hope right!?

Maria Beatriz Vivas is a graphic and industrial designer, currently studying for an MA in Global Media and Communication at the University of Warwick. You can contact her at:


© 2015 Warwick Business School and the Design Council