Design principles are our survival strategies. Gear yourself up!

Troubled times force us designers to reflect on how to survive and urge us to define the iron laws we need for the unknown battlefields we have to face.

2017. As our company is right about to respawn from the underground, we took a deeper look into ourselves, while waiting for the medikits to heal our bodies. Not that we got shot, we just had a warm subsurface fango, which is way less fun than an Ayahuasca trip.

However, we experienced something 
what we would call a relieving catharsis.

During our cleansing process we saw the big mess around us. Old people dying on the field, mid-aged men and women desperately running after trends, startled youngsters with little clear direction, rads promising golden future prophecies, and big tech companies leading the design discourse. Freaky. See similarities to 1917? You know what happened. The Ulm School of Design can somehow be considered the last fortress of Design by academia, before things slowly began to crack. A product related Design discourse should not be solely about materials and tactics to produce faster.

We think it’s time for us to define a framework — our own iron laws of Design and we forged our design principles with one strong premise:

Designers don’t create things at target costing. Designers make sense of things.

This is our battle gear

First things first. As you will see, we will lay down our principles from its foundation to its narrow peak because it makes sense to us, but primarily to help you get a better understanding of how we approach Design and maybe to launch a Design discourse for the years to come.

  1. Knowledge
  2. Strategy
  3. Tactics
  4. Practice
  5. Ethics

1. Knowledge

Knowledge is power, if you know how to get the most of it.

First: Do research — dig into scientific research, read fiction, and don’t get distracted by others. Learn to build your own intellectual property. Learning within your category limits your points of view. Exchange knowledge gained through conversation in a team, without judgment. Judgment manipulates your findings. A broad knowledge will leverage the spaces of possibilities within your design process and increase your number of design choices.

Second: Reframe and organize knowledge. Do it by decomposing data, seeking for similarities within it and then connecting the matching criteria and attributes, while putting the rest quickly into your mental backlog. To achieve maximum cognitive momentum, build pearl chains of seemingly non-related realms, situations, needs and problems by binding them to new conceptual prototypes — a method of loci. For example: searching for a job is similar to planning a route to a desired destination.

This approach will radically shorten your learning and ideation times, reduces mental stress and leads to more differentiated thoughts.

“Always act so as to increase the number of choices” — Heinz von Förster

Building knowledge is that part of Design that resides in the background, which excels our imagination, grows the number of your design choices and extends the meaning of the things we create.

2. Strategy

Building desirable futures

Space is a man-made framework to conceptualize choices that can appear in manifold configurations. Every spatial configuration, if cultural, social, physical, digital or immaterial (Elvis Presley), opens up ≈∞ possibilities we have to choose from — routinely or spontaneously. Strategy helps us to create more narrow spaces of possibilities e.g. desirable futures. Building a strategy means to map those instances of possibilities that will lead to specific choices in order to reach the objectives that mean something to us. Spatial practice therefore is to create meaning.

Not the size of your strategy paper matters, 
but the potential impact it bears.

Example 1

Last summer we were invited by friends at a BBQ in the North of Berlin. 
Route length: 18km | approx. travel time: 26 min.

We chose to take the subway and then the tram to reduce travel time by 10 minutes instead of walking the final mile. When we were about to reach the en-route stop, my fiancée proposed to go to the back end of the subway, because from there we would be closer to the tram station. By missing the tram we would either have to wait 20 minutes for the next tram or would need to walk 15 minutes. Both options would have prolonged travel time.

Strategy: Spend more time with friends and less with traveling.
Action: Go to the back end of the subway to be closer to the tram station.

Example 2

Recently we were working on a new and amazing platform with hand-picked and curated job offerings. To help users to drill down the growing listings we started developing filters — nothing new here. We questioned: What is most important when searching for a job. Finding a job that best reflects you capabilities in a category that appeals most to you. The platform should further enable fast browsing and reduce the amount of possibilities that would only matter in a second step.

Take away everything that doesn’t deliver a desirable future.

Strategy: Finding quickly the coolest job offerings that suit me.
Action: Hide everything that hinders me to spot the perfect job.

3. Tactics

Design is about to devise the right actions

We would never apply to tactics we don’t own. In our opinion best practices work best for those who developed them. More narrowly defined: By tactics we mean any action taken that helps achieving specific objectives during the design process, based on a broader underlying strategy. Relying on best practices means not knowing what to do in certain circumstances, which can be highly risky due to static motion patterns. An agile approach can be convenient in one setup, but deadly in another. Not strategy will help you to choose the right tactics, but the spontaneous use of your knowledge.

Example 1

For example, if you want to create a digital product, it could be better to design by code with real data. Coding is engineering. Don’t get us wrong, coding is not about pasting texts and pictures on medium and knowing how to scour Stack Overflow. It’s not an offense, it’s a call to action.

Back in 2006, after finishing my studies with a distinct focus on systems theory and human behaviors, I wondered why people stick to relational databases. I felt like that tables are too far from how our brains work. That was the time I decided to develop a native XML database from scratch with a decoupled front-end to handle the underlying data.

The model and the views were built by code, the logic happened on paper, quick and dirty. Not to mention that it was my first big coding project, so performance became early a critical issue. When the database reached like 20,000 full bloated entries the performance of the database began to collapse. I quickly recalled something from my research in neurosciences: jellyfish colonies. No details here, but the colony itself is a stem that produces symbiotically connected and genetically identical polyps. This led me to rework the data model by creating exoskeletons (indexes) that basically hold references to child generations of polyps (items). So I was able to bloat the database from initially 20,000 entries to like 2,000,000 with some simple tweaks.

Siphonophore Colony

Example 2

In 2015 we stopped using Harvest App. Harvest is great platform when it comes to time-tracking, but we needed something else. An app that is adaptable to our changing needs. We wanted to own the data, the model and the logic, so we sat down and put our hands on UX and code.

The only assets we designed during our coding 
sessions were essential basic elements (atoms).
Requirements for a subset of tasks

Here again, we just noted down the features and requirements on paper and build everything by code. No wireframes, no InVision prototypes, no static layouts. 2 months from start to completion. What is lean when you use post-its, a static prototyping tool for presentation purposes and still have no clue if it works in real life. And don’t forget: Even Design by Code and the code itself should be sexy.

One critical pivotal design principle is to devise the right actions, not essentially realizing them.

Example 3

In 2016, when we started to build the ZAGENO e-commerce platform, we had a critical design issue. ZAGENO markets tons of different kits for life sciences researchers. All kits have a packaging with similar properties. The difference is the branding. Shooting each sample from a brand from different perspectives would have produced unnecessary costs. We advised our client to employ customizable 3D models with individual labels that can be rendered throughout the backend.

4. Practice

Design is making sense of things

Before we can talk about design practice we should define some critical semantics that make up Design.

  1. Artifacts
    Artifacts are man-made objects intendedly produced for a 
    certain purpose which represent a particular culture. Artifacts should further have a reason for being, zero redundancies, be understandable and only deliver what they promise.
  2. Meaningful artifacts
    Humans are not attracted by the physical properties of an artifact, but by the meaning it invokes by sensing it. A shoe is a shoe. Nike sneakers have a sole, a vamp and laces, but the difference is what people associate with by using it. Thus Design is not engineering.

What makes sense

When everything within an artifact is reduced to it’s minimal requirements we can focus on those characteristics that can leverage meaning or even seductiveness for those who have a stake in. But it’s a thin line how and when to use them. Some examples:

  1. identity
  2. materiality
  3. narrative
  4. kinetics
  5. culture
  6. metaphors

Nevertheless, artifacts should leave open spaces for new interpretations and uses within it’s prior defined limits.

5. Ethics

Design is human

In times when we try to teach machines to act and behave like us we must reflect what it means to be human and we as Designers rethink our reason for being. Designers still create at targeting costs most of the time, desperately trying not to drown in a flood of technological progresses by following those who claim leading the design discourse. From an ethical point of view, we quickly agreed to some simple far-reaching rules of design ethics.

  1. Design should extend our capabilities and not restrict them.
  2. Design should not replace humans nor parts of it.
  3. Design should adapt to humans
  4. Design should never marginalize.

We think we’re not done yet, so feel free to hate speech.

Thanks for reading. Hit love.

— VITO BICA is a design and innovation consultancy in Berlin, Germany. Vito Bica also co-founded Space Bonding, a company for collaborative urban planning and he’s a member of the Account Planning Group, Germany.