Problem→ Suffering → Idea → Transformation

The 2300-year-old Secret to Better Design

James Buckhouse
Oct 10, 2017 · 3 min read

Over two millennia ago, Aristotle created a reusable architecture that can help today’s innovators design everything from better stories to AR apps. You can use this structure to write the next HBO/Netflix binge-worthy series or to design the next influential tech platform.

Here are two maps to show the flow—the first written with Aristotle’s original terms, and the second written in terms we use today.

Aristotle’s Poetics: 2300-year-old secret formula for story-driven design…

The journey starts with a problem and progresses through various stages of suffering until the hero finally figures out something about her or his situation and then uses this epiphany to approach the problem differently. Armed with this new insight, the hero solves the problem (or in a tragedy, the hero might not exactly solve the problem, but at least will know WHY).

The story ends with the hero (and the audience) emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually transformed by the experience.

Peripeteia → Pathos → Anagnoresis → Katharsis
Problem→ Suffering → Idea → Transformation

Here’s a version translated into the type of story arcs used today.

Aristotle’s Poetics: re-written in terms of product design.

This structure makes for a great story, but how does it apply to other efforts — like designing a better doorknob or coding an app?

This same story path describes the design process in general, except now, the innovator is the one who goes on the journey of suffering, inquiry, perseverance and epiphany. Abstracted out, the process looks like this:

  1. Start with a problem felt by humankind.
  2. Trace the suffering to its source to uncover a fundamental truth about the human condition.
  3. Use this epiphany to design a solution. It might help to make a map. Make sure your solution is different, not merely better, than what already exists.
  4. Execute, iterate, and ship. With luck, your solution will help humanity and transform an industry, market, or experience.

Thanks for reading,

James Buckhouse

More on Human Experience Design
More on Story Maps for product designers
More on design from the twelve labors of Hercules
More on how to write Exceptional Content
More on AR and an Augmented Life

James Buckhouse

Written by

Design Partner at Sequoia & Founder of SequoiaDesignLab.com Ex-Twitter, Ex-Dreamworks. Guest lecturer at Stanford’s GSB & d.school https://linktr.ee/buckhouse

Design Story

Complements to the human condition.

James Buckhouse

Written by

Design Partner at Sequoia & Founder of SequoiaDesignLab.com Ex-Twitter, Ex-Dreamworks. Guest lecturer at Stanford’s GSB & d.school https://linktr.ee/buckhouse

Design Story

Complements to the human condition.

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