What is the purpose of design?

First published in 2018. Kathleen completed her MFA in 2021. Below is her statement of purpose from 2018. As professionals, we are always moving quickly from deadline to deadline. It is enlightening to reflect on why we do, what we do.

June 7, 2022


Design education

What is the purpose of design?
Back to school

Who would have thought that being invited to lecture at my university alma mater would propel me back to class as a potential Masters in Fine Art student?

It becomes apparent in life, that we can’t always know the outcomes of our seemingly small decisions. My original lecturer goal was to give back to the design community that gave me a fulfilling career. Instead, teaching would renew a love of learning—sparking a desire to more deeply understand my profession of over 30 years. Through teaching and contemplating a Masters in Fine Art, I’ve been reviewing my past contributions to the design field, as well as my future contributions—where am I now, what have a given and what do I still have to give?

In the field

I have aways believed that design was powerful and that everyone deserved good design in their lives. One of my first projects was to redesign a cosmetic package for an inexpensive facial product. I coveted the project—giving it my full attention. The package redesign increased product sales by 800% enabling the company to sell the now successfully branded product to Dial. I recall this story as a lesson learned early. Design should be respected as an equal partner in strategic business planning.

In my career, I have watched design be elevated from a “make it pretty” activity to a highly sophisticated discipline.

My future vision for the design industry would be to continue on this path while not being absorbed by corporate entities losing its conceptual and creative spirit. We must remain business professionals and fearless creatives at the same time. As the design profession attracts corporate and media attention, we should protect our expertise and design history so it is not reduced to a web template selection, a social media post or a new buzz word. Design is powerful—as are the professionals who practice it—and should be treated as such.

What is good design?

Good design should be an equalizer in people’s lives. Meaning that good design should be available to all and make people’s lives better, easier or more fulfilling. Through research and conceptual thinking, problems can be identified and creative solutions implemented. Entering the design field at the cusp of the computer age, I was educated in a time where concept, human interaction and a bit of intuition was the standard. Today, designers have access to a multitude of demographic and ethnographic data, if analyzed without humility and empathy, can dehumanize their subjects reducing the target audience to cliche personas. I see myself contributing to the future discourse of design in my ability to bring critical thinking skills and humility.

I simply believe, I must walk willingly in my intended audience’s shoes with full empathy. Frankly, I like my audience. I don’t view them with disdain nor do I feel my objective is to manipulate their decisions.

The act of designing useful, appropriately visual work with empathy and responsibility for human use is crucial to a designer’s methodology. My contributions will be to help students and businesses understand that human-centered design is not a new trend but a historically core design philosophy that (surprise!) equates to good business.

Early career

My journey toward a career in design began with a love of art inherited from my family. Both my parents were supportive of an art education that began in high school then continued in college. I graduated from California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) from the School of Communications, an emphasis in Photography and Advertising with a minor in Art.

At the time, transferring from art to photography to advertising and back to art read as indecision, until a marketing director friend of my parents stated matter-a-factly “My dear, you are an Art Director.”

I began my post-undergraduate career as a publication designer—Rice Magazine, Orange Coast Magazine,Los Angeles Times Magazine, Hollywood Reporter and Peterson Publishing. I also worked as an in-house designer for Fred Sands Realty Advertising and Freeman Cosmetics. It was 6 years into my career when I began working at a design studio —finding my creative home. Working at design studios gave me the balance of business and design. The projects varied; print, packaging, environmental and interactive. Confidently, I began my own design studio in 1994, then merged with another studio to form Pencilbox Studios in 2005.


Pencilbox has a unique strategy when accepting clients. We evaluate clients based on their investment in their target audience. Do they care about their audience? Are they selling a product or service that will better the larger community? We look for a certain “type” of client over a specific industry or tactic. Our core ideology is “Good Work, Good Clients, Good Success”—the work must be meaningful, the client must be respectful to their audience (and us) and success is measured by personal or professional gains. The studio does not take on a project unless these core values are met.

My proudest accomplishments are the projects that positively influence the community.

Through design, I have created successful health guides for the under-served at Camino Health Center and I’ve helped increase donations at Providence Little Company of Mary Hospital. The donations funded a nurses training facility and a new neonatal intensive care unit. I created a piece in 2002 for Lexus featuring a person of color. Lexus presented the piece to Jesse Jackson, ensuring the civil rights leader that Lexus was moving toward diversity in their marketing. My firm spearheaded this direction for Lexus through our knowledge of our target audience and the power of good design.

Teaching the next generation

Four years ago, I began teaching at CSUF, transferring to Chapman University in 2016. I provide the students my professional experience, while I am inspired by their enthusiasm. My goal is to supplement my original undergraduate education and my professional experiences with a Masters of Fine Art degree benefiting myself, the design studio partners and my students.

Milton Glaser said—paraphrasing—“Never lose your ability to be amazed.” My individual pursuit of learning is my innate desire to be amazed.


I am amazed by the power of design, the people reached through design and design-thinkers such as Tim Brown, David Kelley or Don Norman. As I am inspired by others, I try to inspire my students. I counsel young designers that they must “live design”. Their hobbies and extra activities should involve design—visiting museums, noticing architectural details or collecting vintage typefaces. As designers, our personal lives and business lives become happily intertwined. My desire is to continue learning, to be curious and to not lose my ability to be amazed.

Kathleen, 2018

Ready to start?

Get in touch