Are you a fan of design? You’ve probably heard the word many times. You may own a pair of designer jeans. Popular reality television shows feature artists designing everything from new clothes to delicious food dishes. You may even enjoy creating works of art with unique designs.

But what exactly does design mean? It’s not easy to pin down, since it’s a broad term that means many things to many people. The word “design” came from Italian (disegno) and French (dessin) words that both mean “a drawing.”

In many instances, a work of art or a new product starts with exactly that: a drawing. A person creating a new work, whether it is a red dress or a new electronic gadget, often starts by sketching out what they think the final product should look like.

The best designs, though, concentrate on much more than just appearance. The artistry of how a product looks can be very important, but success will ultimately depend upon how the product performs. To make sure a product performs well, careful thought must be given to its features and how it will be used.

Thinking about a product’s function will lead a creator to consider which materials to use, which functions to include, how those functions can be reflected in the product’s form, and all sorts of other practical facets of design. Thinking about such things will require as much science as it will art.

In fact, some experts believe that the best designs are those that combine science and art in the most inspirational and creative ways. For years, many people have thought that the sciences and the arts were fundamentally different. However, modern thinkers believe that the two must be combined to keep innovation flowing.

If you think about it, it just makes sense. The most beautiful product in the world won’t be useful unless it has real, practical application to the user. It is the rules of science that lead inventors to create products whose functions benefit users.

Likewise, the most useful products might be overlooked and not optimized unless art plays a role in making them appealing to users. You can see this in the world of smartphones. There are many choices in the marketplace with all sorts of different functions. The best smartphones, though, are those that combine those functions with a form that is pleasing to the eye as well as the hand.

Some educators are seeking to incorporate this dual view of science and the arts in their schools’ curricula. In some areas, the traditional STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, and math — have been modified to be STEAM subjects with the inclusion of the arts.

Although it may be scientific breakthroughs and new mathematical formulas that drive new scientific progress, how useful those breakthroughs become cannot be separated from human experience. Increasingly, human experience is interlinked with the arts, so combining the two often leads to innovations that appeal to both sides of the human brain.

Interestingly, this all isn’t really a new idea. Some of the most influential figures from the past, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, were both accomplished artists and scientists. They used their artistic talents to help them understand the scientific principles at work in the world around them. For example, Da Vinci’s drawings show that he fully understood the unique combination of art and science and how important it was to innovative thinking!

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    • Hi Elizabeth! Thanks for WONDERing with us! We’re so glad you enjoyed learning about design with us today! That’s so fun that that you’ve made a dress before! Did you make it by sewing it? Keep WONDERing! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Is design a science or an art?
  • What is the origin of the word “design”?
  • How does good design combine science and art?

Wonder Gallery

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Try It Out

Ready to combine art and science to take your learning about design to the next level? Find a friend or family member to help you explore one or more of the following activities:

  • Ready to try your hand at design? Get some crayons, colored pencils, or markers, as well as some blank paper, and get to work. On what? We want you to draw a simple design of the car of the future. What will it look like? What features will it have? What can you do in terms of design to make the car of the future as aerodynamic as possible? Can you design it to be fuel efficient? What about its appearance? How can you design the car of the future to make it as attractive to potential buyers as possible? Have fun combining your best thinking about art and science into a unique design all your own.
  • How does the design of a product affect your desire to own and use it? Take a field trip to a local store to check out a product that has tons of different designs: the cell phone. Make sure you have an adult go along with you. Spend some time just perusing the various types of cell phones available today. How do their designs differ? Make a list of the design elements that really catch your eye. Do you like larger screen? Thinner cases? Buttons or touch screens? Talk about these differences in design with an adult. What kind of thinking went into various design choices? Can you identify design elements that seem to be mainly inspired by art? What about others inspired mainly be science?
  • Up for a challenge? Based upon what you learned in today’s Wonder of the Day and your personal experiences with design, create an original work that explains your thoughts on the relative importance of art vs. science in good design. Your work could be an essay or a journal entry. It could also be a multimedia presentation. Or you could design a collage that combines different elements in a unique way that helps to explain your thoughts on art, science, and design. Be as creative as you can be. When you’re finished, share your work with your Wonder Friends by posting a picture of or link to your work on Facebook. We can’t wait to see what you come up with!

Still Wondering

In Illuminations’ Analyzing Designs lesson, students explore the geometric transformations of rotation, reflection, and translation. They create a design and then, using flips, turns, and slides, make a four-part paper mini-quilt square with that design as the basis. 

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