Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

How to design: anything

The universal foundations of design

Jun 12, 2018 · 8 min read

Massimo Vignelli once said:

What he meant was, the basics of design don’t change. If you understand the basic rules, you can design anything.

Another way to think about this is that there are a set of “building blocks” or “fundamental forces” in design. These elemental forces are always at play in your design whether you know it or not.

Here’s what they look like to me:

Image for post
Image for post


Image for post
Image for post

Design is like food. You need to know what type of meal you’re cooking and who’s coming to eat before you make it.

Having cooked meals before is helpful but new meals or ingredients need new research.

Common methodologies like UCD, LEAN or SDLC all give the same advice: go find out stuff first-hand.

Research is not just collecting data, it’s exploring your environment.

The outputs of research should always be some kind of map.

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


Image for post
Image for post

Empathy is the last part of analysis. Statistics is the numbers, empathy is what those numbers mean to someone. Design must always consider the human. How they feel, interact and relate to a design is integral because a design is always for someone.

Research may find that your audience wants dinner, but that is mere facts. Your goal is to convert facts into understanding using empathy and experience.

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

Empathy stops you solving a problem too early. It’s is also a key ingredient for ‘break-through’ or ‘disruptive’ innovation. Both of these comes from Empathy’s tendency to highlight new paths on the map.


Image for post
Image for post

Strategy is often thought of as research or planning, but this is not strategy.

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

It’s choosing a surprise dinner date (instead of a pre-planned one) because your date appreciates novelty.

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

The outputs of strategy are principles and philosophy that help navigate new unexpected situations.

Distilled to its essence, strategy is style.


Image for post
Image for post

To use a strategy, you must ‘step-down’ to a lower resolution. This is about moving from the big idea to specific details.

When planning a meal you list your ingredients: Fish, bread, oil, lemon, salt, butter; enough for four people.

Defining things is tricky. You want to makes specifications about what not how.

What do good specifications do?

  1. Define the participants
  2. Define the limitations
  3. Define the context

When Ogilvy said “Give me the freedom of a tight brief” he wanted a clear strategy and a clear list of ingredients -not how big the logo should be.

Definition and specification focuses on what value to deliver. This provides freedom to allow builders to figure out how best to deliver it. It also avoids the pitfall of drawing blueprints while building at the same time.


Image for post
Image for post

Imagine your fish ingredient.

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

The method you use is as important as the ingredients you choose. It can take time to perfect.

Edison trialed 6,000 different prototypes when inventing the electric lightbulb. Keep going.

Hours spent prototyping, experimenting and re-arranging ingredients deliver a slower burning evolutionary innovation.

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


Image for post
Image for post

With the previous elements 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 research program impressively invasive and illegal. Your strategy visionary with insights delivered by the Dalai Lama himself, however, things change and people lie.

Always test.

The Heartbeat of Design

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

Image for post
Image for post
Makes sense no?

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

These elemental forces of design are not a set workflow, they are forces. Putting energy into an element drives a design along but rarely in a linear fashion. The forces 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 elements anti-clockwise.

Image for post
Image for post
This is what reverse engineering looks like.

Many different paths yield different types of creativity.

Image for post
Image for post
Prototype-First design.
Image for post
Image for post
An average agile project.

Some of the elements 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 some of the elements.

Image for post
Image for post

Some elements need more love than others.

The key to a good design is making sure each element has had enough influence.

How much is enough?

Knowing what is ‘enough’ is a combination of experience, intuition, and process.

One rule of thumb is to compare the maturity of one element to its neighbor. If the levels of detail do not match it’s likely there’s more work to do.

For example: do the complexity of your test cases and code architecture roughly match?

Going back a step may appear more time-consuming but it often saves time and avoids delivering something no one wants to use.

You can hopefully see how different elements strongly influence each other. The most interesting relationships are between opposite pairs of elements.

Opposite Pairs

Each elemental force 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 its partner.

Strategy & Validation

The Idea Pair

Image for post
Image for post

A clear set of testable outcomes are often easier to come up with then a killer strategy. Clearly testable outcomes can help you work backwards deciding on priorities and generating stategy as a bi-product.

Similarly, a clear strategy will single out what’s worth testing to determine if your idea is working.

Research & Definition

The Information Pair

Image for post
Image for post

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 use your current app should match the level of detail defining how the app will be improved.

In the other direction, new product ideas (definition) should ask researchers to explore these at a level of detail useful to guide the design of the product.

Empathy & Architecture

The Innovation Pair

Image for post
Image for post

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 UX.

The Inside Track

In practice, these elemental forces are powered by a mix of man, machine and mentality.

Organisations that flexibly and articulately handle these forces create greater potential to innovate.

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

Firstly, a 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 activity from reactive to proactive. Boyd’s OODA loop also outlines this concept when he speaks of ‘getting inside the loop and taking control’.


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 elemental forces 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.


While the fundamental forces stay the same, the world changes.

A good chef constantly experiments and updates their menu as seasons, people, culture and technology changes.

This constant change means designs always need to be updated or rethought. Your map needs to be updated. This is not a burden, but one of your greatest opportunities for truly great design.

Article first published on 23 March 2014 updated 22 September 2019.

Dermot Holmes

I write about the fundamentals of design and digital.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

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