The True Power of Design

At the beginning of every new endeavor, there is chaos: A jumble of disparate ideas, people, and things that only hint at possible directions; a mess pregnant with latent value. Manifesting that value calls for coherence. It calls for us to bring order to the chaos.

A new order establishes new distinctions between things and new relationships between them. What exactly are we dealing with? What is it? What is it not? How is it different from things that precede it? What are its constituent parts? How does part A affect part B? (Is part A subservient to part B? Its peer? A container?) How do the people who will be impacted understand them? And so on.

We use language to give names to things; to set them apart from other things. We describe how they act, how they influence each other. We cut some bonds and establish others. We create cognitive constructs that allow the new endeavor to manifest as a real, practical thing in the world. (Charles Eames: “The quality of the connections is the key to quality itself.”)

The new order brings coherence to a small part of the universe. It gives you a new understanding of your health, your job, your diet, your marriage, your relationship to society. Or maybe its something of less consequence. (A compelling new way to whittle away your remaining time, perhaps?)

Whatever it is, the new order changes how you understand a part of the world, and therefore your behavior. How do you know it works? It produces results: People adopt the new model and use it to decide and act. An effective model requires no coercion: the new framework itself is compelling and useful enough to drive change.

At least that’s the ideal. Most new orders are a messy combination of some things that work and others that don’t. Remember: this is all emerging from chaos. By definition, the first draft will be rough. Over time, you’ll iterate towards a more precise set of distinctions and connections; towards an progressively clearer direction. (By “precise” we mean distinctions and connections that are crisp enough to achieve the results you want without compromising the society that makes the whole thing possible to begin with.)

Steve Jobs famously said that “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” An important and useful distinction that has helped design move beyond the futility of mere aesthetics. Alas, a distinction that still presupposes the going concern is an it. The true power of design doesn’t manifest in ever-more compelling doohickeys; it manifests in the conceptual frameworks that make it possible for such things come into being — or whether it is even desirable for them to do so in the first place.