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How to design: anything

The universal foundations of design

Massimo Vignelli once said:

“If you can design one thing, 
you can design anything.”

Which is a neat way of saying that by understanding the intrinsic rules of design, you can approach any design project or problem.

Designing anything involves working with fundamental forces that are essentially a set of building blocks for the process of design.

I call these blocks the ‘Universal Design Foundations’. Or the ‘ Design Pizza’.

Here it is:

Design is the purpose and planning that exists behind a series of actions, facts and objects arranged to meet an objective.

The Universal Design Pizza™ groups these into six “slices”.


“If I had asked people what they 
wanted, they would have said 
faster horses.” — Ford

Design is like food. Before you decide how to make it you need to develop a sense of what to make, when, for whom and why.

You may think that because you’ve made meals before, you can skim through this element.

Pre-existing or general knowledge is useful, but new types of meals require new research.

Many methodologies like UCD, LEAN or SDLC all share a similar phase: go find out stuff first-hand.

The purpose of research is not simply to collect data but to explore your environment, find your place in it, and make a map.

The quality of your map sets up your ability to find paths throughout your design process.


“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the problem and five minutes thinking about the solution.” — Einstein

Thinking in terms of empathy instead of simply analysis is useful because a design is not just the object or the statistics. Empathy reminds us that a design is for someone.

Research may find your audience wants dinner, but facts are only half of the equation. The trick is to turn these into valuable insights by using analysis, interpretation and a deep understanding of how humans work.

Does your audience want a fancy dinner out or uber eats? Should it be Japanese or French? Why?

Empathy is a key ingredient for ‘break-through’ or ‘disruptive’ innovation. With a deep understanding of ‘why’ you can approach the design from a new or better direction.

Try not to solve the problem too early, before you truly understand it.


“Strategy delivers principles, used to make a plan, backed up by an argument.” — Unknown

When people talk about strategy it’s often the research or planning that receives the lime light, yet these things are not strategy itself.

Strategy is the direction, guidelines and priorities you will abide by to achieve your design.

It’s deciding a surprise dinner date will appeal more then a planned one, because your date appreciates novelty.

Both provide dinner, both will satisfy your hunger, but the outcome from each might be very different.

A successful strategy delivers principles, momentum, and provides a guide for dealing with new or unexpected situations.

Distilled to its essence, strategy is about style.


“Plans are worthless. Planning is essential.” — Eisenhower

Acting on your strategy requires defining a list of ingredients: Fish, bread, oil, lemon, salt, butter; enough for four people.

Balancing the level of detail in requirements is tricky. You want to specify what not how.

What do good specifications do?

  1. Paint a vivid picture of the customer need and the responding strategy
  2. Outline boundaries based on objectives
  3. List useful requirements and anticipate questions

When Ogilvy said “Give me the freedom of a tight brief” he wanted a solid strategy with a supporting rational to work from -not how big the logo should be.

Specification focuses on what value to deliver, and provides enough freedom and support to allow builders to figure out how best to deliver it.

It’s important to make this distinction and not try to make blueprints and build at the same time.


“The details are not the details, they make the design.” — Eames

Imagine a fish. How many ways can you take this single ingredient and chop, marinade, cook, combine and present it with the other ingredients? The opportunities are endless.

The method you use to create your meal is just as important as the ingredients chosen.

Hours spent prototyping, experimenting, and arranging your ingredients are the keys that deliver a slower burning, and longer lasting evolutionary innovation.

Edison tried 6,000 different materials before carbonized bamboo met his requirements for the electric lightbulb. Keep going.

Small adjustments push the envelope forward. The necessary adjustments can be found with one simple question: ‘What arrangement would best suit my audience?’.


“Trust but verify.” — Reagan

With the previous foundations in check you should feel pretty confident, however testing is crucial for two reasons:

Firstly, small changes can have big impacts. You need to flip back and forward between creating and validating your design.

Secondly, humans are strange, unpredictable creatures. Your specifications may be excellent. Your strategy visionary with insights delivered by the Dalai Lama himself. Your research program impressively invasive and illegal, however things change and people lie.

Always test.

The Heartbeat of Design

You may feel like these foundations should be worked clockwise, one after the other, each building on the strength of the last.

Makes sense no?

In an ideal world this would be nice, but no project ever runs smoothly and all information is imperfect.

The Universal Design Foundations are foundations, not a set workflow. They rarely follow each other in a perfect linear fashion. The foundations are building blocks that can be used in any order that suits your goals. For example, someone reverse engineering a product would most likely move through the foundations anti-clockwise.

This is what reverse engineering looks like.

Many different paths yield different types of creativity.

Prototype-First Disign
An average agile project.

Some of the foundations might be fast tracked because of existing research, strategy or a plug-and-play technology. A workflow such as Agile might produce lots of short quick loops through only a few of the foundations.

Some foundations need more love than others.

The key to a good design, and this is the important bit, is to ensure each foundation is loved enough to deliver value and positively influence the outcome.

Enough is Enough?

Knowing what ‘enough’ looks like comes down to a combination or experience, intuition, and process.

Comparing the progress of a pizza slice to its predecessor is a quick way to assess whether more attention might be needed in the preceding slice.

Going back a step may appear more time-consuming, however in most cases it actually saves time and prevents you from delivering something no one wants to use or can’t use.

You can begin to see how different pizza slices strongly depend and influence the success of others. The most interesting relationships are between opposite pairs of foundations.

Opposite Pairs

Each slice of the pizza has an opposite partner. Each pair are two sides of a coin. Both slices inform what’s required of the other. A problem in once slice can often be answered by its looking to it’s partner.

Strategy & Validation

The Idea Pair

A clear set of testable outcomes are often easier to come up with then a killer strategy. Well defined objectives can help you work backwards, decide on priorities and guide your strategic development.

Similarly, a clear strategy will guide you towards what’s worth testing to determine if your idea is working.

Research & Definition

The Information Pair

These two slices pin down the detail. A good rule of thumb is to match the level of detail across both slices. Research on how customers interact with a product should be answered by specifications defining what happens at the same level of detail.

In the other direction, new ideas for potential products should ask researchers to explore at a level of detail useful to guide the design of the product.

Empathy & Architecture

The Innovation Pair

How do you decide the best place for that button or headline? You let empathy guide you. Stand in your customer’s shoes and create something that responds to what’s happening in their world.

Is your audience watching TV? At a football game? On a train? Each of these scenarios could mean a wildly different interface or headline is required to accomplish your goal.

The Inside Track

“Speed is a by-product of accuracy.”

The Universal Design Foundations are held together by a glue of man, machine and mentality.

The more accurately an organisation can arrange and rearrange these building blocks the greater its potential to innovate.

The result is an nimble and creative organisation. This creates two opportunities:

Firstly, your responsive posture allows you to “out turn” your competitors to better meet challenges as the environment changes.

Secondly, you can get ahead of the curve and begin to dictate market terms. This is sometimes called ‘gaining the initiative’, and switches focus from reactionary to proactive. Boyd’s OODA loop also outlines this concept when he speaks of ‘getting inside the loop and taking control’.


“A problem is an opportunity the wrong way up.”

A great design rests and the end of a road of organised actions, facts and objects. Success is largely determined by how good you are at finding a way around obstacles in the road.

Invention is when you to ‘find’ a useful new path amongst the vast array of possibilities. Through this lens we can look at the Universal Design Foundations as a function of finding:

  • Research » Find Facts
  • Empathy » Find Perspective
  • Strategy » Find Style
  • Definition » Find Focus
  • Architecture » Find Arrangement
  • Validation » Find Outcomes

Finding is the core function of a designer, and it’s a never ending search.

A good chef is always tweaking, experimenting and updating their menu in light of changes to season, people, culture, technology and many other factors.

This constant change means designs always need to be updated or rethought. This is not a burden, but one of your greatest opportunities for inspiration.

While the context and circumstances are always changing, these foundational rules always stay the same. Remember the Universal Design Foundations, and your next big challenge will look a lot more appetising.

Article first published on 23 March 2014 on