Understanding Design

I realized I’ve been talking a lot about game design without explaining what it is. This probably wouldn’t be a problem, except design in general, and game design specifically, are relatively new concepts, and I believe many people have misconceptions about them. When people think about the design of something, they often think about how that thing looks, but while the two are related, design and appearance are very different things.

Today we’ll go on a foray through the world of design, starting with  graphic design, which many people conflate with design in general. Next, we’ll briefly look at design in general, discussing what made design its own discipline in the 20th century. Finally, we’ll return to game design, investigating what makes it unique and especially cool in the world of design.

Graphic Designers Versus Artists

Many people think of graphic designers as the prototypical designers. After all, they’re moving around physical, tangible components to try to create an image. But let’s take a step back. What is the difference between a graphic designer and an artist? I think investigating the difference goes a long way in elucidating what designers in general do.

So what’s the difference between graphic designers and artists? The quick and dirty answer is that artists create artifacts that are ends in themselves, while graphic designers create artifacts intended to further some other end. I know this is a painfully simple answer and that there is a lot of grey area between the two disciplines, but this more or less captures the biggest difference. Also, by no means do I intend to insult or belittle graphic designers with this answer. I’m sure a lot of graphic designers consider themselves artists, and I don’t disagree. A lot of artistic and aesthetic decisions are necessary for graphic design.

Alright, caveats aside, let’s break this simplified characterization down a bit. When I say artists create artifacts that are ends in themselves, I mean they create artifacts that are supposed to be beautiful or interesting or thought provoking as they are. The artist may hope that you leave the piece with a certain experience, such as awe, but he or she hopes that the artifact itself is enough to do that.

If an artist does have an intended goal in mind, it is generally less focused than that of a graphic designer. For example, an artist might want to “make the viewer more aware of deforestation in the Amazon”. A graphic designer, on the other hand, would intend to “make the viewer buy our product”, “make the viewer understand how to reach the bathroom”, or “make the viewer to sign up to travel to the Amazon to help fight deforestation”.

Graphic designers create artifacts hoping they will influence the behavior of the people who experience them. For example, a graphic designer may be in charge of creating an ad. After making many decisions about layout, font, colors, relative sizes, etc, the graphic designer will create an image that he or she expects will best entice viewers to pursue the product being advertised. While the designer cares about how the artifact looks, ultimately all of those aesthetic decisions are in service of the primary goal, getting people interested in the product.

Of course graphic designers work on much more than ads. They create maps and posters to help convey information, signs to guide people through space, and logos to communicate philosophies, among many other things.

Can you imagine abstract expressionism appearing in an ad or a sign (expect for a museum exhibit)? Maybe as a background, but even then it would be toned down from its pure art form. Why? Because the information density of it is too low for graphic design. When your goal is communicate exact information or influence behavior in very specific ways, you don’t have the luxury of being able to use space, ink, attention, etc on anything else. When it comes to artwork, though, it’s perfectly acceptable to use those resources to create a general feeling or mood in the viewer.

So, when it comes to graphic designers, the name of the game is functionality. They shape images in order to influence behavior or experience in specific ways. Artists might also want to influence behavior and almost certainly experience, but their goals are generally less specific, giving them more wiggle room to explore and experiment.

Where did these Designers come from?

I hope the discussion of artists versus graphic designers will make my definition of designers pretty easy to stomach. To me, a designer is someone who creates something, physical or otherwise, with the intention of structuring the experience or behavior of someone in a specific way. That’s a pretty general definition, but that’s because these days there are designers of all types!

The original designers were probably architects, who create spaces for specific types of behavior. These guys have been around for thousands of years. Furniture designers have probably been around for almost as long. More recently we’ve seen the emergence of graphic designers, audio designers, consumer electronic designers, and of course game designers! But designers don’t stop there… there really are designers for everything. Designers create vehicles, they create camping gear, and they create processes (the steps taken to do something… think assembly lines). We even have language designers creating programming languages and Esperanto. Many of these disciplines emerged only recently, or were at least only recognized recently. Why?

While there are many, many reasons why design mushroomed in the 20th century, I believe the most important and prominent is the emergence of psychology as a serious field of study. No longer is the mind some mysterious other-worldly entity. While each person is a unique individual, broad rules that minds seem to follow have been discovered, which can be leveraged or exploited. Additionally, statistical tools and experimental methods have been developed which allow designers to quantitatively measure the impact of their creations on the minds of the people who use them.

Game Designers

It’s important to remember that although designers of many stripes have emerged recently, as long as there were things, someone was designing them. It’s just that people have become explicitly aware of the unique and important role of designers. Game designers are no different–while games have been around for centuries and digital games for around fifty years, it is only in the last 25-30 years that people have become aware of game design as a discipline.

What makes the role of game designers especially interesting is that games differ from many other products like ads. Games are usually an end in themselves (though not always… see Persuasive Games). The objective of most games is to create a certain experience in the player by having the player interact with a system. So the role of the game designer is to create a system (the game) to give rise to certain experiences in the player. Ultimately, the game designer is developing and tweaking a system to make people feel a certain way.

Of course, everything about the game will impact how the player will experience it, from the way it looks to the packaging to the cost to the difficulty to learn it. The game designer must think about all of these things to make sure the player’s experience is shaped the way he or she wants it to be, but in the end it’s the system that mostly determines the player’s experience.

With all this talk about games existing to create experiences in players, it may sound like the game designer can go all abstract expressionism to create an experience, but this can be a very dangerous choice. Why? The game will not create any experiences in the player if the player doesn’t play it. For this reason, a game designer is more like a graphic designer than an artist, since the functionality of the system is central to the player’s experience. As I’ve argued before, games are art, so the game designer can experiment in all sorts of different ways, but it’s always important to remember you’re a designer at the end of the day and think about the player.

The astute reader will notice that my definition of designer says they structure the “experience or behavior” of someone, but when talking about game designers, I’ve talked a lot about experiences, but not behavior. Are there game designers that focus on behaviors instead? Traditionally, game designers have focused on experiences, but recently that has actually changed. In particular, many “social” games are more interested in behavior than experiences. The designers are more concerned, for example, with whether players return to the game or tell their friends about it, rather than whether they feel happy when playing. Obviously, behavior and experience are related, but focusing on one over the other impacts what the designer prioritizes while building the game system, which is an interesting change of perspective. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this sometime in the future.

Alright, that’s all I have for today. I hope this discussion has cleared up what it means to be a designer, and specifically what it means to be a game designer. Designers seek to structure experience or behavior by shaping whatever artifact they’re creating. Game designers shape games, which are fundamentally systems. What makes many games interesting as designed artifacts, though, is that the experience or behavior they shape is the goal of the system, putting game designers in an interesting and unique position in the world of design.

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1 Comment

  1. Interesting post!

    It made me reflect on my design decisions as a musician, a process I never really attributed to design in a practical or physical sense that you describe. I contend that game designers, like musicians, are stuck in this confluence of contrasting forces many artists finds themselves in. You create first and foremost for yourself, but you desire more than anything to present that work to an audience.

    I designed my music to achieve some success or result in myself, and only hoped that was translated to the listener. There lies, I think, the most important distinction between video games and other art forms, as I obviously don’t need to inform you: the reliance on the player. It’s a matter of reaching millions (hopefully!) of audiences of one, each player having a separate and distinct impact upon the outcome of the art. It’s a fascinating thing to consider. But is relying upon a player to interact with your system (game) really that much different than relying upon an audience to listen to a song the way you intended it to be heard?

    That element of chaos, evident in play testing and the game-breaking code anomalies associated with games is a beautiful analogue to the objectivity of all art, especially the enjoyment of music.

    I can’t imagine the processes involved in creating a game, in the applied sense of coding or the distance one must have to view the experience freshly each time – to help guide the experience of the player. It would be interesting to hear more from you on this aspect – how your expectations of player experience have measured up to actual play throughs and feedback you’ve received from titles you’ve developed.


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