Donald Schoen calls design is a dialog with the material, a dialog where you shift from immersing yourself in the problem and standing back to get a perspective on your work so far. A sinus curve. In, out, in.
But design is not only a dialog with the material; it is also a dialog with the people whom you design for. A process of on one hand understanding their point of view and on the other applying your point of view to the problem. A process of becoming them, taking on your customer’s point of view as your own. It is true; you should not be designing for yourself. You should strive to become the ones you are designing for and then design for yourself. In this way of understanding what design is, the process can be described as acquiring and using a 1st person perspective and stepping back and applying an outsiders point of view, your own as a designer, a 3rd person perspective on the problem.
This requires two orthogonal qualities. As designers, we need empathy to understand people and we need director skills in order to impose our view of the world. Without one the other is useless. If we don’t have empathy then our point of view will be just ours. We will construe the task we are designing for on our terms and we will deliver something that is most likely strongly us but with an inadequate understanding of the real task and without regard for the human beings who will use our solution’s real needs and desires. On the other hand if we have only empathy and no point of view or the will to impose it, then we are not designers. Design is by and large about what the world should be like. And the strength of the ‘should’ is determined by our experience and vocabulary. I believe that this is what we primarily bring to the table, an ability to envision the world being different, but again, without the empathy that will be a hollow vision.
To some extent this may sound like method acting. I think the difference is that in design it is crucial that you also step back and get the outsider's perspective.