Tangibility, Design, and Graphicacy

Tangibility sits at the heart of making. Whether you write a poem, compose a song, or draw a picture, you bring forth something tangible. Whereas before there’s nothing, now there’s something.

People might draw the line differently and regard something as tangible only when they can touch it with their hands. Here I define tangibility as the property of being perceptible by any of the senses. The litmus test of tangibility is if you can point to something and say, “That is what I made”. And the beholder would know at once “that” indisputably exists is unequivocally your making.

It is in this vein of making I identify most dearly as a designer. “Design”, as Frank Chimero put it in an analogy of ancient humans coming to understand the world is malleable in the making of hand axes, “is a field of transformations concerned with the steps we take to mold our situations.”1

A research project from the Royal College of Arts has once articulated that the nature of “Design with a capital D” encompasses the appreciation of “material culture” and the application of “the arts of planning, inventing, making and doing”2. As a creative discipline, design has a strong material underpinning manifested in the activity of making.

Tangibility, therefore, is essential to design. The power of a designer lies in her ability to bring ideas to life in tangible forms. She who designs reifies the abstract—requirements and constraints, fads and trends, wants and needs, fears and hopes. She translates them into something concrete: products, places, and messages3. When questioned, Designer has no trouble to offer: “That, is what I designed.”

It then follows the question, what does tangibility in design mean? Among all work of art that’s perceptible—proses and poems, songs and ballads, the gustatory cuisine and the olfactory perfume, what’s unique to the design discipline?

Let’s start with the product of design. A brief survey of majors in famed design schools surfaces these common subfields (by no means exhaustive): graphic design, industrial design, illustrations, interior design, fashion design, transportation design, film, photography, architecture, and most recently, interaction design.

Their artifacts—posters, chairs, buildings, clothes, softwares, some of which might be experienced through multiple sensory channels, but all of them share a common one: the vision. They can all be seen by our eyes. Clearly and directly, leaving no room for the slightest doubt.

Equally important is the fact that this visual aspect of design outcome is crucial in its evaluation. A novel in reading needs to be looked at, but absurd as we all know it if one “judge a book by its cover” (that is, in fact, judging the work of a designer). A song might have a performative visual element, but it is mainly to its auditory experience we refer when we acclaim it a good song. In contrast, one simply cannot conclude a design is good without addressing its form4.

A famous axiom in design is “form follows function”. Later critic contends that “form follows emotion”. Either way, both suggest how form should be conceived without disagreeing form is the what. Indeed, “The ultimate object of design is form”5, says Christopher Alexander, a renowned architect and design theorist.

Next we turn to the process of design and ask: what is the archetypical activity of design?

For Jones it is drawing—“the one common action of designers of all kinds”6. No wonder at the Rhode Island School of Design, all first year undergraduate students are required to attend drawing studio classes. The curriculum describes drawing as “an essential activity intrinsic to art and design practice”. Others such as Buxton7 and Fällman8 went more specific: sketching. Sketch is fluid, loose, ambiguous, open for criticism and interpretation, which makes it a vital aid in working through a design.

Building on them, I would like to choose another direction and offer a higher level abstraction: the uniquely designer way of bringing tangibility is visualization through graphic images.

As literacy to Humanities and numeracy to Science, it is graphicacy that makes a designer. Everything from senseless scribbles and primitive sketches to finer drawings, diagrams, and wireframes, is the vocabulary of a designer in translating the abstract into the concrete. It’s in this distinctively non-verbal, iconic, and figurative mode designer thinks and communicates.

Designer is thus a visual maker in the sense that she not only pursues visual ends but also in her pursuit employs visual means. The visual medium is as much a tool to design with as an outcome to design for.

If you are still with me, by now I should have arrived at such a conclusion: design is making tangible things through graphic images. Now a short qualification feels imperative.

The argument above, if at all generalizable, is first and foremost personal. I do not intend to delineate the landscape of design or attempt to give a definitive answer to the question of “what is design”. Instead, I try to embody in words what I value most in design.

For me, design is ultimately a visual way of making things. Yet a software designer of today often devotes much of her time and attention away from this nature of creation. Other than the consuming “coordination” in corporate environments, one is constantly asked to provide “evidence-based” solutions with “measurable success” through the use of research.

However, research is a tool of Science. While Science is investigative and seeks to understand how things are, Design is constructive and concerns how things ought to be9. I don’t mean design do not need research or research is inferior to design. All I am arguing is that they are different and the difference is to me, fundamental.

I found great consolation reading Andy Matuschak’s recent essay, where in depicting his work from the lens of design he speaks something I dared not to:

When I’m working on primitives like this, the main drive I feel is a sense of creative possibility. Understanding is involved, and it’s important; big steps often come from understanding more deeply. But the urge to understand feels secondary in these moments to some broader process of creation, of making good on what could be.

What draws me to design has always been this: the yearning to create wonderful things and the excitement to explore creative possibility. It’s searching and nurturing ideas, putting them on the canvas, and through a continuous conversation between hand and eye with the material and Zeitgeist helping them sprout into something beautiful.


  1. Chimero, F. (2012). Craft and Beauty. The Shape of Design (pp. 30).

  2. Cross, N. (1982). Designerly ways of knowing. Design Studies, 3(4), 221-227.

  3. Norman Potter proposes three simple categories of design: product design (things), environmental design (places) and communication design (messages). Potter, N. (2002). What is a Designer (pp. 11). London: Hyphen Press. (Original work published 1969)

  4. When we talk about vision we cannot bypass the topic of inclusion. One can safely assert that “Good design is accessible” but—no, accessibility alone is not good design.

  5. Alexander, C. (1964). Goodness of Fit. Notes on the Synthesis of Form (pp.1). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  6. Jones, J.C. (1992). Design Methods, 2e. New York: Van Norstrand Reinhold.

  7. Buxton, B. (2010). Sketching User Experiences. Johanneshov: TPB.

  8. Fällman, D. (2003). Design-Oriented Human-Computer Interaction. Proceedings of the ACM-SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI’03), 225–232.

  9. “The natural sciences are concerned with how things are. …Design, on the other hand, is concerned with how things ought to be, with devising artifacts to attain goals.” Simon, H.A. (1996). The Sciences of the Artificial, 3e. Cambridge: MIT Press.