What it looks like is how it works

Reflections on sight and design

As part of this week’s London Design Festival, I was invited to take part in The Design Museum’s series of Pecha Kucha talks in the Auditorium at 100% Design at Olympia. The talks were about the five senses and how we use them in design, and I spoke alongside three fantastic thinkers in Clara Gaggero Westaway, Sarah Buxton and Tom Sharp.

These are my notes and slides from the talk. Or if you prefer, ‘what I would have said instead of the things I actually said’…


I’d like to talk about how what we see sets a tone for how we use things. And how, as things become more complex, we can use familiar forms to unlock unfamiliar ideas. I believe this is important for the work we all do in reimagining products and services.

There was a moment at the turn of the century when Steve Jobs, amongst others, drew a distinction between a perception and a reality of design. Design wasn’t ‘what it looked like’, but ‘how it worked’.

(Which is a little ironic now, given the shitshow that is iOS10.)

Now, I can understand why “most people” thought “design is what it looks like” — there’s something bigger at play here, a shift in what design could do, technologically…

As an example, think about cars. For decades, you could learn enough about engines to open any bonnet, and understand what you were looking at.

What it looked like WAS how it worked.

That stopped being true of modern cars. Because by and large every car is now a computer. And what’s happening inside is hidden, abstract.

You might even say there’s an ‘app store abstraction’. Anywhere you find discreet, downloadable pieces of software that change the way a physical thing operates, the less likely you are to be able to understand how something works just by looking at it.

(By the way, car apps sell for thousands. It might be time for a pivot…)

It’s not just cars, of course. All things are slowly being sucked into the little black boxes inside things, the ones we carry, the ones that sit in our homes and offices and parks and shops.

Everything looks the same to the human eye, yet works in very different ways. What it looks like does not tell us how it works.

I’m really interesting in solving these issues at various different levels, to design models for understanding. For instance at the levels where people are using the products and services certainly — how do you make things more obvious and easy to use?

But also for the people who’re making these products and services, in companies themselves — how do you have good models of understanding for what you’re putting out there?

There are three things we think about in working this way…

Firstly, you need things that break patterns of how people see and imagine things in the first place. Can you subtle dismantle the conventions of how people see now, without causing alarm? How can you help them realign their models of thinking to the reality around them?

Secondly, it’s also useful to take some familiar forms for them, and use them in a very different way. For instance, the continued use of the flat painting in Cubism to represent a world changed forever by the advent of radio waves and x-ray — the technology changes the way the artist sees the world, but the fact it is still a two-dimensional painting allows us to access the idea.

Then thirdly, in order to generate something close to the multiplicity of views and perspectives at large in the digital space, you need machinations that allow you to generate new perspectives over and over again.

If you can find ways to combine these things, then you can create inviting, intriguing, yet familiar ways in to complex, abstract ideas for people.

It’s like the door in Being John Malkovich — it transports you to a wholly new experience, but only draws you there with a common, familiar interface in the door itself.

This isn’t a new idea, of course — a lot harks back to what Seymour Papert experimented with, by using the LOGO turtle as a way in to computer programming and geometry for children.

The triangle formed between the body, the self, and the abstract idea through using the material world unlocked an understanding amongst learners of what was going on.

One way we look do to this is through cards — we make things called Artefact Cards for people to write, draw and rearrange early stage ideas and design elements, so they can keep exploring different connections

The constant movement of the cards means that each time they’re moved, dealt, shuffled and so on, new perspective emerges, and pattern are broken…

But it’s all in a very familiar form. People know what to do with rectangles with rounded corners. So they take to it quickly.

What they don’t realise (at first) is that the constant movement of the cards is a metaphor for the way information in digital systems will move around, continually seeking new and relevant context.

What the cards look like is how the internet works.

A second example was started when a client asked us to help with their customer journey mapping. Customer journey mapping is really easy when the product is simple and repeatable — insurance, for instance. But this wasn’t the case here.

Instead, we started thinking about the idea of ‘customer cartography’. Rather than one journey, why not construct a territory which could hold all of them. Use people’s natural understanding of geographies and relationships to design model together that spoke to the complexity of the issues, but with a basic simplicity from the starting point.

We called it “the Island”. The set-up was simply — all of your customers who have problems end up over here on the island. It’s your job to get them back to the mainland. First of all, you have to find them on the island, in all the different place that exist here, and work out what their problems are.

We’ve always done a lot of exploratory design work like this in LEGO, because it fulfils a lot of the right criteria (it’s familiar, generates multiplicity, and patterns are readily broken and reassembled)

With the themes, we build users, though about their journeys, and then built the places they’d be found on the island, and worked out how those related to each other.

The output naturally generated a complex set of layers in the way the stories were being told together.

There was a basic elemental layer, the sizing of areas, driven by quarterly data. Then there were reoccurring events, which manifested them,selves as structures and features on certain parts of the island. Finally, the everyday stories which people told about the things they were hearing could be described using the map, and quick solutions to problems found.

What the map looked like was how all customer relationships worked.

What this particular design is becoming is a way for the company to have a physical representation of the abstract relationships they have with customers, and in a format they can use to quickly work through potential solutions.

So, to conclude…

We can be better at using the things people can see to explain the abstract things that they can’t. As more of everybody’s work disappears into small black boxes, this approach becomes ever more important.

These Material Metaphors offer a useful way in our experience of broadening understanding. By using the familiar to help people understand the unfamiliar, what we’re doing is using X to show Y.

What X looks like is how Y works.

I believe it’s something we should bear in mind for designing products, creating services, educating children and beyond.

Thank you.

John V Willshire