Understanding design in 10 questions

Background, practice, and relationship to customer experience
Mar 3, 2023

Design can seem confusing or even mysterious, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In GSA’s Office of Customer Experience, we get lots of questions about design, so we’re going to answer some of the questions we hear most often. Here we go.

Question 1. What is design?

According to American designer Charles Eames: “One could describe Design as a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.”

View the short film Eames made to answer this question (1972, 5 minutes, 28 seconds). You might recognize his voice; he was a frequent narrator for Disney Studios.

Question 2. What kinds of problems can design solve?

In the 1960s, design theorist Horst Rittel[1] coined the term wicked problems to describe the issues design can address. He describes wicked problems as “…problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.”

In other words, design takes on complex problems that resist simple and singular answers, because those problems do not have simple or singular roots or origins. Using this definition, it’s easy to understand how design could be useful in complex spaces like the federal government. 

Question 3. What are the core components of design?

In the 1990s, designer Richard Buchanan divided design into four component parts[2]. These definitions describe the broad strokes of design practice. Here, we’ve mapped Buchanan’s concepts to terms in current use.

The four core components of design are:

  1. Graphic design - The design of symbolic and visual communications
  2. Product design - The design of material objects
  3. Service design - The design of activities and organized services, which includes the traditional management concern for logistics, combining physical resources, instrumentalities, and human beings in efficient sequences and schedules to reach specified objectives
  4. Public sector design - The design of complex systems or environments for living, working, playing, and learning…sustaining, developing, and integrating human beings into broader ecological and cultural environments, shaping these environments when desirable and possible or adapting to them when necessary

Question 4. How does design complement other disciplines?

In conversation with designer and artist Sara Schnadt[3], we find that design balances engineering and fine art. Engineering sits firmly, always, in the possible, and iterates forward, while art leaps from the possible to the impossible and purely imaginative. In taking on wicked problems in a practical way, design balances imaginative possibilities (art) with constraints (engineering), and charts multiple paths forward and multiple desirable end-points for any project.

Question 5. How can design improve collaboration?

With greater specialization in our working world, teams grew further apart. Modern design, with its roots in both art and engineering, grew out of the need for more specialized knowledge. Design enables teams with disparate specialties to more easily talk to each other, collaborate, and find answers that are not bound by disciplinary lines.

Question 6. What is service design?

Service design is a design speciality characterized by a multi-stakeholder and systematic view. Jodi Forlizzi, professor of human-computer interaction, put it this way:

“If I gave a set of user-centered students the task of designing a ride-sharing service like Uber, they would think about the driver and the passenger. But if you gave that same problem to someone who’s really thinking in terms of service or systems, they would start thinking about taxis, and public transportation, and other traffic on the road. They would be more aware of the multiple stakeholders as they affect ride sharing.”[4]

Question 7. What does design practice bring to a customer experience team?

Anything with a set of problems and a set of possibilities can be designed. You can design your furniture, your workout routine, your career, or your neighborhood composting program, to name a few. What sets customer experience (CX) apart from design is the application of design to a set of business goals. An example of this is the design of what business theorist Jim Collins calls a business’ “flywheel,”[5] the set or formula of offerings businesses hold at their core that create their own momentum and keep the business moving forward.

A business flywheel can evolve without design, but trial and error are pretty inefficient working methods. With design, aspects of business can be ideated, tested, and advanced or discarded quickly. For this reason, business leader Danial Burka, called design “the scientific method for business.”[6]

Question 8. How can design improve customer experience?

By balancing possibilities and constraints, and using interdisciplinary practices, design supports CX by engaging with and proposing solutions for facets of customers’ wicked problems, such as:

  • Was the customer experience of this program actually designed, or did it just evolve, trial-and-error style over time? 
  • Is it still serving customers as intended? 
  • Was it once designed and has devolved? 
  • Where should it go now? 
  • Can it even be redesigned? 
  • Should it be redesigned entirely?

Design supports collaboration with multiple disciplines and stakeholders to tackle and solve customer problems.

Question 9. What does GSA’s Service Design team do?

In short, the interdisciplinary Service Design team supports GSA’s mission to improve customer experience through intentional, data-based arrangements of products, services, and governance practices that can be recurrently tested and iterated upon.

Or, to reduce it further: The Service Design team improves customer experience through intentional and testable arrangements of products, services, and governance practices. We help teams design better experiences with GSA services and systems, processes and products.

Question 10. How can I hire a designer at my federal agency?

Read Bringing design in-house to learn about hiring designers in the federal government, and reach out to customerexperience@gsa.gov with any questions.


  1. Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Rittel, H.W.J., Webber, M.M. Policy Sci 4, 155–169 (1973). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01405730
  2. Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Buchanan, Richard. Design. The M.I.T. Press. Issues, Vol. 8, No. 2, (Spring, 1992), pp. 9-10. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1511637
  3. https://www.linkedin.com/in/sara-schnadt-2735134
  4. Designing the Invisible: An Introduction to Service Design. Author: Lara Penin. Publisher: Bloomsbury. 2018.
  5. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't. Collins, Jim. Harper Business. 2001.
  6. High Resolution Podcast. Episode 7. 27 March 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeE6Tx_nO94 (1 hour, 8 minutes)