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Lessons Learned: Design is about Ego and Practicality

Sheppard Narkier By Sheppard Narkier June 18, 2013

We live in a highly designed and engineered world. Most of us have opinions about what a good design is and have no problem stating it when either extremes of excellence or horrendous taste intrudes upon our senses. In IT, whether we have earned the right or not, that kind of judgment is in abundance and can lead to some serious conflict, damaged egos, bad will, and project disasters. Design is visceral; if you propose one, your intelligence and competence are on trial. So the question naturally arises, “how do we decide that we have the right to judge a design?” This is critical to understand, as our civilization, and in many cases our lives, depend upon these judgments.

Any manner of design employs a discipline which embodies a set of principles and processes, although the application of them is not always consciously performed. I have learned that the principles of design can be summarized as:

  • Understand the context of the problem
  • Employ compromise to balance hard and soft constraints
  • Clarity rules! Convey decisions, issues and concepts in a clear manner that can be followed and analyzed by all stakeholders
  • Factor in the need for change

Designing with these principles in mind creates the chance to evaluate a design objectively. This is critical to remember, because a design is created in answer to a problem. Objectivity starts with asking whether the design solved the problem within the stated constraints.

Principle #1 – Setting the Context

pThe City of Paris, long known for its architectural beauty, was scandalized in 1977 when a new modern art museum, the Centre Georges Pompidou, opened in the historic Beaubourg district. The bottom line is that all of the normal aesthetic undesirables (e.g. plumbing, cabling, HVAC and escalators) were placed on the outside of the building and painted in bright primary colors. The photo above shows the building as built. Note that this not temporary scaffolding; it’s the aesthetic undesirables.


Picture2The picture below shows this museum in the context of its neighborhood (I drew the red oval over the museum). Although this museum is now a big attraction, the neighborhood’s context was fundamentally ignored in the museum’s design. In some cases this ignorance could have very painful consequences. For example, the expected visitation rate was projected at 5,000 people per day, instead it is now 25,000. What could that do to traffic and the regular flow of life in such a community

There are other examples when design context in our everyday life has been taken for granted or simply ignored. I am sure everyone could name a handful easily.  The lesson learned is that context frames the problem while providing hard and soft constraints that usually limit the solution, forcing compromise.

Principle #2 – “Uncompromising” is Nonsense

You hear it in TV commercials for luxury cars, fine watches, even liquor – some images (1)sophisticated, powerfully voiced actor states how product X is created with uncompromising quality. My two questions when I hear this are:  who can afford it, and is it maintainable at a reasonable cost? From our own life experiences, let’s remind ourselves how many hours of battery use we get in an ultra slim phone, or how many people are willing to pay $10,000 for the ultimate in handcrafted watches. IKEA has a saying: ‘if the design did not start with a price in mind, then it can’t be taken seriously.’ Not everyone will or should adapt IKEA’s model, but IKEA makes it clear where their constraints start. Maintainability and cost are not trivial concerns, no matter what resources the consumer might have.

Principle #3 – Clarity is More Important than Brilliance

The forces that drove the design and subsequent creation of an object rarely remain static. If a design is successful, its enduring legacy and thus perceived success will often be found in the revisions and reincarnations applied to that object which keeps its design relevant. That is why it is so critical that the design be clear and easy to understand by other professionals.  If the design does not clearly reveal how the components function and interoperate, then the “brilliance” of it becomes a fleeting spark. Lack of maintainability and adaptability will trump brilliance every time.

Principle #4 – Timelessness can only be achieved through Embracing Change

There is a remark often thrown around – Timeless Design. It sounds profound and is the golden dream for many a professional. Whether we are referring to buildings like the Louvre in Paris, a vehicle design, or the electronic spreadsheet, great designs must adapt to change because user’s problems change. The Louvre was built as a royal residence and is now one of the world’s great museums. It is still functional and not just beautiful because people were able to install electricity, HVAC and advanced security. If that was not possible, what would it be used for? Consider how an army car has evolved into a staple of the SUV. Think about the 30 years of changes applied to the spreadsheet and why it is even more relevant today.

Some would argue that artifacts of fashion are timeless, but look at the origin of high heeled shoes; they were invented for men of royal standing in the 17th century. When they flopped around in them, often falling and making fools of themselves, the men ordered their women to wear them. The famous “little black dress” is only timeless if society’s attitudes accept that artifact as an acceptable garment.6927065541_cf42b21613

So here is a parting thought regarding the design of a truly ordinary object. As part of our earliest learning experiences in school we are introduced to the pencil. It is so easy to take this tool for granted therefore; I was surprised to learn that in 1992 someone wrote a book on the seemingly mundane topic of the pencil’s design history. Writing / input implements that suit various purposes are still being designed even in the new wireless digital age. Their reach and impact include the enablement of physically challenged people to interact.

The point is that most objects in our world have a design story and legacy. In the world of IT, most of that story has been compressed into 60 years and the interconnections among the created objects have enabled an ever faster cycle of change. This acceleration is not necessarily better, but that will not impede the juggernaut of “progress”. We are responsible for giving design the respect it deserves, and in most IT projects that respect is truly lacking and we all suffer from it.

Sheppard Narkier

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0 thoughts on “Lessons Learned: Design is about Ego and Practicality

  1. I’m really enjoying this series Sheppard.

    I found Principle #2 interesting simply because of the context – not just the words that you use, but the context they are meant to convey. Sometimes simplicity is simply brilliant.

    Can’t wait for the next in the series.

    • Thanks Pete,
      The next one is on architecture which is a natural follow on from design. As for principle #2, the issue of compromise, we all experience the effects reality has on our expectations, and as painful as it is to admit, sometimes you must start with good enough.