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.
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.
So why doesn’t everyone use this way of thinking? Like Elon Musk said, it takes a lot more mental effort. And not everyone is familiar with such a scientific way of approaching a problem.
So, this got me thinking…
Should we completely dismiss analogy in design and innovation? Or is there a time and a place for its proper use?
In short… Yes, there is a time and a place! Analogy can be a very useful tool when used in conjunction with first principle thinking.
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.
You can then take these first principles and use them for reasoning, forming hypotheses and insights which frame your point of view. A point of view guides the direction of your design. It is a mechanism for constant feedback which tests the validity of your ideas against first principles, keeping your work grounded in reality.
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.
However, no analogy is 100% effective. You often overlook some fundamental truths if using analogy to try and understand a challenge. This is why students in higher education have to unlearn the planetary orbit analogy for electrons in favour of the actual reality of atomic ‘orbitals’.
Analogy is therefore not the best tool for analysis. However, it can be a very powerful tool for synthesis. Before you say that leads to something derivative, take a look at this…
“Good artists copy, great artists steal” — Pablo Picasso* — Steve Jobs
*There’s no actual proof that Picasso said this, but it’s a nice quote nonetheless!
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:
- Understand = Analysis
- Act = Synthesis
“Understand” is all about learning. You develop your understanding of the challenge through research and analysis, and by creating a point of view:
- Research— Observe patterns through research and testing to understand the full scope of the challenge; including the user, business and technology.
- 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.
- Point of view — Use your insights and hypotheses to reframe the status quo, redefine your challenge and create a unique design perspective.
So, how can you view first principle thinking in relation to “understand” and the analysis?
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” is about weaving your first principles together in novel ways. You create prototypes and refine your design through inspiration, ideation and communication:
- Inspiration — Draw inspiration from completely unrelated domains and apply this thinking to your challenge. For example, Einstein credits the theory of relativity to be the result of a musical perception.
- 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.
- 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.
So, how can you view analogical thinking in relation to “act” and synthesis?
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
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.
Ultimately, using analogy in this way doesn’t go against what Elon meant when he said “reason with first principles rather than by analogy”. This is using analogy for inspiration, ideation and communication; not for reasoning. Furthermore, you are constantly testing what you create against first principles. So don’t worry, you’re not going against his word.
As with everything in life, striking a balance is important. Too much first principle thinking can lead to analysis paralysis, while too much analogy can distance you from the reality of the challenge. The two mindsets are therefore complementary. Enjoy!