Layers of Design - Part 1

December 11, 2015

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What is Design?

When we hear the term Design, what comes to our mind is perhaps images of beautiful apps, elegant animations and Flat UI trends like the one below:

flat_ui_design

When people say they need a designer on the team, most often they are referring to a Visual Designer. The expectation is that the designer will make the application beautiful and intuitive to use.

We often forget that design is not just what meets the eye, it’s also what doesn't - how it works as a system.

Consider this IKEA table for instance.

ikea_side_table_design

It’s a pretty simple table. It has a nice color and suits the surrounding. Seems sturdy, looks like it’s been put together neatly and is well polished. One can appreciate that. But, there is more to it that might not be apparent by looking at a table in isolation.

 

ikea_side_table_join

Since it’s flat on the sides, you can easily join multiple tables to make a larger one.

ikea_side_table_stack

If you have multiple sizes, you can stack them inside one another and save space when not in use.

 

ikea_flat_packaging

The furnitures are packed in flat packs which allows them to save space during transport and storage. This lets IKEA cut down on a lot fuel and real estate needed.

ikea_effect

This one is interesting. Studies show that “consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created.” That means, by offloading the work of putting together the table to the end customer, IKEA actually made it more loveable! It’s called the IKEA effect.

Now, all of this is * by design* .

What does design really mean?

If you look up design in a dictionary, the definition you’ll find is:

do or plan (something) with a specific purpose in mind.

With that definition, everyone is a designer. If you’ve planned a date or even planned your daily routine, you are a designer! The activity of planning by looking at the constraints, considering the way the world and society works. Based on the rules of physics and nature, we come up with something that might take us closer to our goal in a simple and efficient way.

So, let’s rephrase :

Design is the act of planning a simple and efficient solution to get a desired outcome, considering the variables.

If everyone is a designer, why hire one?

I can take decent photos on Instagram. But that does not mean you would hire me as your wedding photographer. Likewise, planning doesn’t make one an expert designer. There are just too many things to consider in this complex world. Whether a single designer can do it or not, depends on the skill and experience of the designer. But, here are few things that needs consideration:

Constraints influence Design

Take these two plants for instance:

desert_cactus

Desert Cactus

brazil_nut_tree

Brazil Nut Tree

Both trees need water and sunlight to stay alive, the desert has a scarcity of water and abundance of sunlight, whereas the tropics have an abundance of both.

The cactus has evolved itself to be bulky to store water. It has lost it’s leaves to prevent water loss and instead grew spines to protect itself from predators.

The Brazil Nut tree faces a different problem. An abundance of light and water leads to a thriving plant life, thus leading to competition for light. The Brazil Nut tree dealt with it by growing tall and developing broad leaves.

Both plants are great designs by nature. The reason they different is because they function differently. Imagine putting a cactus in the rain forest - It would never get enough sunlight to sustain itself and the Brazil Nut would probably dry and catch fire.

The best designs are those that qualify constraints and manage tradeoffs well. This requires thinking carefully at all abstraction levels, testing what gets us closer to the desired outcome and making constant improvements; while balancing sustainability of a business and user needs throughout.

Your product needs to be well designed  in all aspects, not just made visually appealing. Unless that happens, the law of nature - survival of the fittest - will take effect and the product will eventually fail.

In following blog posts, I’ll walk you through what the layers of design are, and what tools we can use to simplify our thought process.