Toward a Design Genome (?)
David Kadavy

David, I’m not entirely sure I understand where you are going, but when I read the word genome, I think of repeatable patterns that can be specialized based on design requirements.

Let’s take the 911. It’s a car — that basic part of a genome mandates certain design patterns like 4 wheels, passenger space, an engine, ect. It’s a sports car — now it needs certain performance features. It’s buyers are typically well off and they have certain user-based technology expectations like heated steering wheels, leather interior, stereos that are clear no matter the speed at which the user drives, etc. Everyone expects the high-end sports car to invoke feelings of desire, adventure, even danger. These would all be DNA features of something called “sports car.”

Now, I don’t know how product design works, necessarily, but I do know how software design works, and most good software design is based on patterns. The most pervasive pattern is something called the model-view-controller pattern. This pattern has become a defacto standard used for almost every system that interacts with a human user.

Does building a sports car like the 911 have a pattern? I world argue it has many, but one of those patterns is essentially the model-view-controller pattern. If so, you have taken a good step toward repeatability, or part of a design genome.

I would suggest you take a look at the writings of an architect named Christopher Alexander. He made the arguments above related to the frequently unintentional designs of public space, buildings, and other “brick and mortar” features. He then argued that successful designs are made up of patterns. He is the father of IT design patterns, weirdly enough, and I think he died before he could realize the impact he had on an entire industry. All of his books are incredible.

Next, check out something called the Capabilities Maturity Model. The model describes the ability of companies to repeatable build successful software systems, and a few other things. The cool part of the CMM is that it implies much about every activity in almost any human system, even like a design genome.

Then if you haven’t had enough, check out the writings of Kent Beck and Ward Cunningham. These were two of the early pioneers in the theory of using and develing software design patterns.

Remember — don’t get caught up in terms like software or courtyards. Abstract away from those terms and I bet you will start to see how a genome might start to come together. At worst, it should get you a lot closer to some of the DNA in that genome.