late 14c., "to make, shape," ultimately from Latin designare "mark out, point out; devise; choose, designate, appoint," from de "out" (see de-) + signare "to mark," from signum "identifying mark, sign" (see sign (n.)).
The Italian verb disegnare in 16c. developed the senses "to contrive, plot, intend," and "to draw, paint, embroider, etc." French took both these senses from Italian, in different forms, and passed them on to English, which uses design in all senses.
From 1540s as "to plan or outline, form a scheme;" from 1703 as "to contrive for a purpose." Transitive sense of "draw the outline or figure of," especially of a proposed work, is from 1630s; the meaning "plan and execute, fashion with artistic skill" is from 1660s. The intransitive sense of "do original work in a graphic or plastic art" is by 1854. Also used in 17c. English with the meaning now attached to designate. Related: Designed; designing.
1580s, "a scheme or plan in the mind," from French desseign, desseing "purpose, project, design," from the verb in French (see design (v.)). Especially "an intention to act in some particular way," often to do something harmful or illegal (1704); compare designing. Meaning "adoption of means to an end" is from 1660s.
In art, "a drawing, especially an outline," 1630s. The artistic sense was taken into French as dessin from Italian disegno, from disegnare "to mark out," from Latin designare "mark out, devise, choose, designate, appoint" (which is also ultimately the source of the English verb), from de "out" (see de-) + signare "to mark," from signum "identifying mark, sign" (see sign (n.)).
[T]he artistic sense was taken into Fr. and gradually differentiated in spelling, so that in mod.F. dessein is 'purpose, plan', dessin 'design in art'. Eng. on the contrary uses design, conformed to the verb, in both senses. [OED]
General (non-scheming) meaning "a plan our outline" is from 1590s. Meaning "the practical application of artistic principles" is from 1630s. Sense of "artistic details that go to make up an edifice, artistic creation, or decorative work" is from 1640s.
Design is not the offspring of idle fancy; it is the studied result of accumulative observation and delightful habit. [Ruskin, "Modern Manufacture and Design," 1859]