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Design X Giovanni Sartori

Design – Meaning – Ambiguities

Research by Ali Hassan

Research Supervisor | Muhammad Irfan, Assistant Professor, 

Department of Philosophy, University of Karachi.


Design, a term famously fashioned for making things beautiful, is an expression for which many other usages are also applicable. The aim of the research is to cater to these meanings which are creating ambiguity and vagueness in the concept of the term design and how it is used. We are using a conceptual framework provided by Giovanni Sartori, in the Guidelines of the Concept Analysis in which the author has provided some principles to clear the problem several researchers and theorists often face with respect to terms and their concepts, as they create multiple meanings. We have then applied these guidelines to the term ‘Design’ and tried to clear the uncertainties and fuzziness in the concept of it. I am proposing a formal definition encompassing characteristic taken from different definitions from various authors, practicians and academics, in order to achieve one single definition. A definition that completes the requirements the term design entails, so that it may also help the process of formal research.


Design, design meaning, design definition, design research, Giovanni Sartori, concept of design


When we wake up in the morning, we usually turn off our alarm and go straight to the bathroom, (though all of us might not). If we pay close attention, what we’ll realize is that we are surrounded by a lot of products, like the phones which we just used to turn the alarm off, or the knob of the bathroom door which we use to get inside the bathroom. All these products we are surrounded by are designed by some product designer or industrial designer, fashioned with the help of some design process. When we look at our smartphone’s screen, we touch it, interact with it while turning of the alarm, it is also a product design. Even though it’s a non-tangible product design and involves interaction design, user experience design, user interface design navigation design so on and so forth, what’s to be noticed is that we are literally surrounded by Design. But what is Design?

A little bit etymology:

Late 14th Century, “to make, shape,” ultimately from Latin designare “mark out, point out; devise; choose, designate, appoint,” from de “out” (see de-) + signare “to mark,” from signum “identifying mark, sign”.

The Italian verb disegnare in 16c. developed the senses “to contrive, plot, intend,” and “to draw, paint, embroider, etc.” French took both these senses from Italian, in different forms, and passed them on to English, which uses design in all senses.(etymonline.com)

Why should we care about Design?

Because we all use it and are living in it. We can see countless artifacts that surround us and not only do they shape our lives but also sustain it. The concept of design is what makes it, which is present in the philosophies of all the disciplines which are built and dependent on it. 

‘We all have our philosophies, whether or not we are aware of this fact, and our philosophies are not worth very much. But the impact of our philosophies upon our actions and our lives is often devastating. This makes it necessary to try to improve our philosophies by criticism. This is the only apology for the continued existence of philosophy which I am able to offer’ (Popper, K. R. (1974). Objective Knowledge. An Evolutionary Approach. London: Oxford University Press.).

Design is evolving and so is our understanding of it. Donald Norman, a professor and researcher in design, usability, and cognitive science, at Apple coined the term “user experience,” in 1990. Now we have a whole field related to User experience design and the advertising agencies are evolving from advertising to a whole new customer experience design firm, as they call themselves now.  We need to think about what we design because it will have future implications. Design usually works in a process called design funnel, which means for example (but not limited to), the artifact you make today will inspire someone, and that inspiration will get someone to make those changes which will improve its overall purpose. There are more than forty disciplines which uses design and the way they use design affects the future of the world. These fields are interconnected with each other producing more sophisticated output. Now the question arise, can we trust with what we are creating today as it will be the inspiration for future innovation, based on the term which is itself is ambiguous in nature? The concept of design needs a clear meaning, as the meaning will drive its usage and thus affect our world and future of its dwellers.

In a layman’s term design is what usually people say about objects like, what a curvy design, or, when someone appreciates a pattern of lines or flowers or anything related to textile people also call it a beautiful design. But this design is related to the discipline of art and is designed by someone with a formal degree in art related to design. What if someday someone wants to have a pot in their washroom with a plant on it, and he cuts out a plastic bottle, put some soil in it containing some seeds? This seems like a DIY project, but do we consider the person a designer, or the person with a formal design degree is considered as a designer? This here is a philosophical debate but before getting into this debate, it is urged that the concept of design must first be understood correctly.

Besides art, there are various other disciplines like software design, where design is nothing like what we have understood above. It’s just a matter of object when applied, the meaning is changed. If we look closely, we can see that design is applied to both tangible and non-tangible entities, for example in Social design the field is related to the application of design principles for the betterment of society or the management design systems include: Enterprise design, Product design, Execution design and Business design. Experience design, which is a relatively new term, is all about what a human experience with respect to its created surroundings or designed technology. Hence, we cannot cover whole design discipline here, and what is more important is that the term design has a lot of objects/referents to which it belongs but when it comes to getting that the understanding of it, it seems to me that its subjective or that it depends on the view. In other words, it seems that the definition of design is widely affected by the fact where it is used. There is no fixed meaning of design, whereas it is being used not only in art but also in science literature and even economics.

This versatility comes with a price. Since there is no fixed definition of it, there is an ambiguity in its usage: where to use and when to use it. A clear understanding of design helps in teaching institutions where the basics of teaching is the word design. In many places, professions are even built on the term where the building block that is the concept still lies unclear. Clear perceptions create purposeful longevity and future. I’m borrowing the process of Giovanni Sartori from his Guidelines for Concept Analysis to resolve this problem.

Literature Review

Design has been taken as a serious study of research in literature. Consider the following definitions provided by many design authoritarians, practicians and academics: Partners of Pentagram (a design firm in London, UK) point out design as “A design is a plan to make something; something we can see or hold or walk into; something that is two-dimensional or three-dimensional, and sometimes in the time dimension. It is always something seen and sometimes something touched, and how and then by association, something heard.” David Pye, a Professor of Furniture Design at the Royal College of Art, and author of the book: The Nature and Art of Workmanship, says “Invention is the process of discovering a principle. Design is the process of applying that principle. The inventor discovers a class of system – a generalization – and the designer prescribes a particular embodiment of it to suit the particular result, objects and sources of energy he is concerned with.” Miller’s proposition “Design is the thought process comprising the creation of an entity.”

These definitions have different perspectives regarding design as a concept. In case of Partners of Pentagram, the usage of the term design is more of a materialistic approach; something which is tangible. But then what about the intangible use of design, for example “designing strategy”? In case of Pye, he proposed a system or a kind of law or principles which back a design, but there is a possibility that someone designs something out of no knowledge of principles which according to Pye is a requirement of doing so. For example, a person designs an interface but he doesn’t have any knowledge of the principles applied to it yet he is able to design it anyway. William Miller (an American Engineer, Architect and Educator) on the other hand limits the design usage capability only to a thought process, but it cannot be ignored that physical objects are also the product of design. In short, design encompasses much more than just a thought process.

Jevgeni Hristoforov, Dean at Euroakadeemia University, who has a doctorate in Architecture and Industrial Design, bifurcates design in general and in a designer’s perspective as “Design is an area of professional creative activity which is aimed at the creation, projecting, perfection or final shaping of the objects of material environment meeting the given utilitarian and aesthetical qualities” and “ Designer – specialist who has received the basics of art education, has mastered skills of projecting in the selected area of activity, is responsible both for the external appearance of the object and for its utilitarian qualities, is able independently to carry our projecting work, or implement in his task in the working team.”

By analyzing various definitions stated above and others given in the appendix section, and how the word design has been used, different concepts linked with the word can be obtained. Design as a process, design as a creation, design as planning, design as physical activity, design as goal or purpose, design as collection of activities, design occurring in an environment, design as an artifacts or as the object of the design, design as organizing, design as a creative process, optimizing  or mental activity and so on. 

The usage of the term design has also affected its definitions. With respect to the geographical usage, Michael B Hart, a professor of design in Nettetal-Kaldenkirchen, Germany, talks about how design is called in different locations with respect to its application. In Denmark, “Design as process deals with uniting such factors as technology, marketing, sales, recycling and disposal to create the balance between the commercial, immaterial and aesthetic values of a product.” While in Sweden it is “the planned and innovative use of available knowledge to form processes, environment, products and services with point of departure in user’s needs.” And still in Norway, “Design includes thinking and planning in order to give shape to things in a way that they can be manufactured, used and finally destructed.” (Design som drivskraft for Norsk Næringsliv 2002-2010).

Keeping aside the academia, in a layman’s term there are multiple meanings associated with the word ‘design’ as we use it on a daily basis. Strategy design is about the planning of strategies while the designers all over the world use design as their expression of arrangement of elements of design with respect to design principles to complete a function. A common man sees design as a pattern or lines or shapes or as they describe the overall form of any object. In 1970 Charles Eames was asked what is design according to you? Eames, an American industrial designer backed with product design experience answered: “One can describe design as a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.” For Eames design has a mere functional spirit.

Research Methodology

Giovanni Sartori was an Italian political scientist who specialized in the study of democracy and comparative politics. His work like Concept Misinformation in comparative politics is prominent in the field of political science. Sartori’s notion of “conceptual travelling” and “conceptual stretching” is unparalleled in the social science methodology.

To fulfill the aim of this project, which is to achieve clarity of the concept of design, I’ve taken help from Sartori’s “Guidelines for Concept Analysis” a chapter in Social Science Concepts: A systematic Analysis published in London in 1984.

Language is a complex phenomenon with which we deal every day. It’s a basic communication device without which we cannot transfer or convey what is in our mind. In order to have a precise communication we need to have a clarity in this instrument of knowledge, because as Sartori says, “bad language generates bad thinking and bad thinking creates a confusion in communication or for whatever the knowledge-seeker does next.” There are two types of language, the formal and natural. Formal language is the language with univocal characteristics which means the meaning generated from the term is single and is clear. Since we don’t communicate in formal language, it results in creating a lot of confusion in what we say in daily life. The words we use (mostly are) equivocals, which are words that have more than one meaning which further creates misunderstanding in both general communication and in research work, which in turn affects our thinking capability and overall concept progression respectively.

Sartori’s guidelines for concept analysis is a set of rules, a method to clarify the problems we face in the concepts linked with words we use in daily life. As we have seen in literature review above, there are a lot of definitions for the term design and it’s been used both as an intangible concept which resides in the mind and also for the concepts with tangible/empirical referents. He proposes the idea that to clarify the concept one needs to be clear about the term which represents the concept or in other words to remove the ambiguity in concept of the concept.

Before going towards the methodology let’s examine some basic constituents of conceptual analysis that Sartori has proposed. The Sartorian conceptual framework is that clear thinking requires clear language and language requires precise definitions, for Sartori the terms are the basic unit of language and knowledge. Thus, can be broken down into (1) words (terms) (2) meanings (connotations) and (3) referents (denotations).

Word is a broader concept, as it also encompasses conjunctions and connectiveness, so to be more precise we use ‘term’ in the place of word. Meaning is also called as connotation (the abstract meaning or intension of a term, which forms a principle determining which objects or concepts it applies to) and Intension (the internal content of a concept) means the same. The compliment of the connotation is denotation and likewise for intension, it is extension. Intension is the characteristics or properties associated with the term while extension means the class of objects to which the world correctly applies to. But what does the word referent (also called objects) mean? Sartori defines it: whatever is out there before or beyond mental and linguistic apprehension. So, to speak, referents are the real-world counter parts (if existent) of the world in our head.

Confusions and ambiguity in the concepts happen because of the problems in the term, either because we have associated more than one meaning with it or we have defective meaning-to-referent relation which creates vagueness in the concept. The first problem is the terminological problem while the latter is denotational problem. For design we will carefully analyze and will try to remove the ambiguities or vagueness or both in the term design. Further it will be investigated how it is used in the general public and academia. Finally, it will be attempted to cure this problem by using Sartori’s rules which have been discussed in the following analysis section.


According to Sartori the problem with the concept and the understanding of it arises from the ambiguity or the vagueness. Let’s analyze design from these both perspectives. 

When someone says “we design chairs” here the user (human) uses the term design as a process. The meaning is that the “creation” of the chair is an exercise or an activity that a user performs in order to achieve a goal or the referent, which is a chair in this example and is empirical in nature. But if someone says “we design strategy” the user “plans” which is an intangible product in the mind and is not empirical in nature. When someone says “how he designs his products” we can sense the meaning is about the physical activity but when someone says “look at the designs” the connotation is creative in nature. In all these cases the term design is single but has more than one connotation: creation, planning, mental activity, physical activity and creativity.

Not only are there multiple connotations but there are empirical verifiable and conceptual/mental referents as well. 

 To clarify these complex ambiguities and vagueness due to multiple referents, Sartori calls for a reconstruction of definition of by applying “In reconstructing a concept, first collect a representative set of definitions; second, extract their characteristics; and third, construct matrixes that organize such characteristics meaningfully.” (Guidelines for concept analysis)

We have collected a number of various definitions from authoritarians, practicians and academics which can be consulted in appendix section from which certain characteristics of design have been extracted, and which are as follows:

In many definitions Design is constructive, it means the design is solving some problem or there is a goal which needs to be met with the help of design in many disciplines. Design is creative, as the word defines it creates/generates something for a problem which can be solved by some innovative means; or that it demands innovation with the arrangement or application of some elements which can be visual elements, data or anything like such; is performed by someone or something, (if automated) by a computer algorithm or a human being; applies to a tangible asset like wood or an intangible asset like management with applicable constraints or limitation like time, minimum resource; bounded by a specific brief for which design is the requirement to produce in an environment, (can be a physical environment like a shuttle or virtual environment like a software or on a conceptual plane like mind); to produce/solve/generate results with the application of aesthetics (if applicable). For example, aesthetics can be applied to physical objects like chair and even virtual objects like a logo, as it can be seen and appreciated with respect to the requirements.From above descriptions of characteristics, I have taken out characteristics in order to Organize the Intension(meaning), the terms are as follows

  • Constructive/creative 
  • Object oriented 
  • Elements
  • Performed
  • Constraints or to be bounded 
  • Aesthetically appealing 
  • Executed in an environment

Organizing the Intension

The Definition

Design is created by element(s) applied by a performer (mostly human), is object oriented, executed in a constraint environment to produce aesthetically appealing (if applicable), constructive goals.

As we have defined the intensions of the term design now, we are moving towards the extensions or to the denotations, which means how the meaning of the definition refers to the referent(s). Now the basic question is which entities(extensions) are included and excluded from our definitions. This problem can be solved with defining the boundaries or its degree of Boundlessness, (any term can have endless meaning which results in ambiguity, boundlessness is defining the boundary by using the characteristics to help in precision) and its degree of denotative discrimination (means the discrimination of the usage of the term design which respect to indefinite extensions).

There are more than forty-five disciplines in which the term design is being used (see appendix). These disciplines can be classified under two different models, namely the rational model and the action centric model (Wikipedia). Both models define design in a way which fulfills the requirements of all the disciplines but they also collide with each other as there are criticisms on both (for the sake of research and limit I’m not presenting the criticism here).

The rational model

1 Designers attempt to optimize a design candidate for known constraints and objectives.

2 The design process is plan-driven.

3 The design process is understood in terms of a discrete sequence of stages

The action-centric model

The action-centric perspective is a label given to a collection of interrelated concepts, which are antithetical to the rational model. It posits that:

1 Designers use creativity and emotion to generate design candidates.

2 The design process is improvised.

3 No universal sequence of stages is apparent – analysis, design and implementation are contemporary and inextricably linked

Both of the models have the characteristics or the properties which we have presented in our definition like constraints, plan, process, creativity etc. with additional properties like environment, aesthetics the generator of the design in most cases a human, in order to add the discriminating adequacy. This definition has the discriminative power of a concept hence it can be used as a formal research, educational and professional needs.


Design, having a vast field of disciplines applied to, and at the same time the amount of usage of this term called for a definition where we can converge “how to define the term design”  I’ve proposed a definition which collectively encompasses the characteristics and at the same time substantiate the requirements of the referent/object being applied to and the disciplines up to date now. Design is created by element(s), (visual elements, data, drawings or anything like) applied by a performer (mostly human), can be automated, is object oriented, (being applied to an object) executed in a constraint (limitations added) environment to produce aesthetically appealing (if applicable), constructive goals.