228 Followers
·
Follow

First Principles & Analogy in Design

TL;DR: First principles and analogy are complementary tools in the design process. First principle thinking improves your ability to analyse the challenge, while analogical thinking improves your ability to synthesise new ideas.

Image for post
Image for post

Introduction

This is a clip from an interview with Elon Musk I often find myself coming back to…

“I think it is important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy.” — Elon Musk

“First principles is a physics way of looking at the world. You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, ‘What are we sure is true?’… and then reason up from there.” — Elon Musk

It’s beautiful, right? Once you hear it, it seems so simple and obvious. And the results speak for themselves. By taking the first principle approach to problem solving; Tesla, Solar City and SpaceX are innovating like no other.

First principle thinking

First principle thinking is a tool which helps you analyse and understand your challenge. It boils the problem down into first principles; the most fundamental truths about the user, business and technology — what you know can’t be changed. For example; your users may be limited by their salary or education, regulations may prevent your business from operating in certain ways, and your technology’s capabilities may not allow certain functionality.

Analogical thinking

Analogical thinking takes your understanding from one domain and compares it to another. For example, many students are taught that electrons orbit an atom’s nucleus like planets orbit the sun. This is easier for students to consume because they most likely learned about planetary orbit before atomic chemistry.

“Good artists copy, great artists steal” — Pablo Picasso* — Steve Jobs

How they fit together

Now, let’s see how first principles and analogy fit together in the design process. I really liked this article which boils design thinking down into 2 clear steps; understand & act. You continuously flip between these two steps to iterate and improve your design. For me, I believe you adopt a different mindset in each step:

  • Act = Synthesis
Image for post
Image for post

Understand

“Understand” is all about learning. You develop your understanding of the challenge through research and analysis, and by creating a point of view:

  1. Analysis— Analyse and boil your observations down into first principles. Use logical reasoning to draw relationships between your first principles, creating insights and hypotheses about your challenge.
  2. Point of view — Use your insights and hypotheses to reframe the status quo, redefine your challenge and create a unique design perspective.

First principle thinking is a catalyst for analysis.

First principles are not the only way to analyse challenges but they can be used to supercharge your analytical abilities. For earlier iterations, first principle thinking is used to generate insights and hypotheses. In later iterations it is used to test and evaluate your insights, hypotheses and designs. By flipping between first principles and analogy you are constantly finding new areas to explore, giving yourself a greater understanding of the challenge.

Practical exercises for first principle thinking

Act

“Act” is about weaving your first principles together in novel ways. You create prototypes and refine your design through inspiration, ideation and communication:

  1. Ideation —Generate lots of ideas by quickly shifting perspectives and brainstorming around the challenge. For example, an analogy like “headphones are jewelry” can generate some very interesting ideas for a brand like Beats.
  2. Communication — Analogy taps into people’s prior knowledge and makes information much more consumable. Designers must understand first principles but this doesn’t mean users have to. For example, Google use analogy in material design to make their visual language respond to user interactions in a familiar way.

Analogical thinking is a catalyst for synthesis.

Analogy is not the only way to synthesise ideas but it can be used to supercharge your synthetical abilities. For earlier iterations, analogy is used for inspiration and ideation. In later iterations it is used to refine your designs and engage with your user. By flipping between “understand” and “act” you are constantly testing your ideas out against first principles, keeping your work grounded in reality.

Practical exercises for analogy

Summary

First principles and analogy are complementary tools in the design process. First principle thinking improves your ability to analyse the challenge, while analogical thinking improves your ability to synthesise new ideas. Although it takes more mental energy to reason from first principles.

Written by

Designer • Strategist • Jedi

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store