Systems and Seeds

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty.
First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds.

When I hear designers talking about design, I’ll often think of the above quote by physicist Richard Feynman.

Many designers aspire to create beauty. It’s a noble goal; the world could use less ugliness, more wonder. Occasionally, however, we’ll fixate on the creation of a subjective form of beauty — confusing creativity with aesthetics and empty formalism.

I believe that beauty is not an abstract concept, but is directly related to efficacy. Like Mr. Feynman, I believe that understanding why something exists and how it works only adds to our sense of wonder, delight, and awe.

As digital product design increasingly defines how it differs from other forms of design, we’re seeing greater clarity in both the mindset and the processes of the product designer. We’re generalists that need to reconsile commercial, technical, and experiential inputs in a way that has never existed before. We rely heavily on generative research, collaboration with teams of diverse specialists, creative-problem-solving, and data-informed design. We leverage lean methodologies toward clearly defined success metrics, and then iterate toward fit.

Extending on Mr. Feynman’s quote above, let’s imagine that a client has commissioned us to design the most beautiful flower in the world.

Many classical designers would start by researching some flowers, maybe going out in the garden, sketching some shapes, and testing different combinations of form, texture, and colour. They may iterate for a while, then go to the park and show their new flower designs to some passer-by, who’d choose one or another. ‘Beautiful petals’, they might say, and they’d really think they were getting somewhere.

But if we don’t understand how a flower was once connected to a branch, and how the other leaves on that branch contribute to the health of the larger organism, or how that plant is composed of cells with complex actions in reaction to specific stimuli, or how that plant depends on that flower to procreate, and how that flower is designed to attract a certain insect to help carry away its pollen ... then what criteria are we solving for? How could we ever overcome the subjective opinion of that viewer in the park?

The flower was never intended to look beautiful to us, as humans — it has evolved over millennia in response to specific stimuli, in a manner that maximized its potential to reproduce. The plants that thrived are those whose systems adapted to their conditions, regardless of any of our opinions of them.

As a digital product designer, that’s why I care about measurable, generative systems. I care about understanding how. I care about going as far back upstream as possible, to look at how we can create a whole range of potential solutions, which can be tested against specific criteria, in a specific environment, at a specific moment. I’m most interested in designing complex systems composed of inter-connected components that are optimized toward a clear goal.

Instead of designing the flower, I’d argue that we should focus on designing the seed. Let’s invest our finite efforts in a manner that achieves maximum effect, is measurable against set conditions, and is independant of the subjective opinions of others.

When we ask how it works in order to understand by which criteria it should be judged, we get closer to discovering how it might be effective and— ultimately — beautiful.