Why Good Design Is Incredibly Difficult to Achieve

Posted 1 year, 5 months ago | Originally written on 13 Dec 2022

The act of design is contranatural: the second law of thermodynamics tells us why. Entropy serves to erode design and there is nothing in nature other than the persistence of life which is preservative or the act of will which is creative that oppose entropy.

While we extol the achievements of science, in many cases with fabulous awards such as the Nobel Prize or Wolf Prize, science is the act of reporting the results of analytical pursuits. Science pulls back the curtain on the detailed operations that make the world tick along; the more fundamental the elucidation the bigger the prize. This doesn’t mean that it’s easy; nature is not willing to give up her secrets. But science on its own has little creative power.

On the other hand, design is catalytic serving to identify fundamental building blocks by which to realise some useful function. Design, by its various names (art, engineering, literary fiction, architecture, film making and countless others you know better), is creative and when done right is an open highway to an economy of better lived experiences.

In reality, most designs consist of composing a set of subsystems which cooperate to deliver the required output. We refer to these subsystems as technologies and have the misplaced confidence that such technologies are revolutionary in and of themselves. In truth, technologies are only helpful when applied in the right systems. They need integration to maximise their usefulness. Technologies in isolation may be borderline functional but will mostly be hindrances.

Typically, only a handful of such subsystems are required to wield enormous variety. Here’s the rub: the gamut of technologies is enormous and growing every day. Therefore, the sample space from which to draw the appropriate set of subsystems is astronomical.

The only way to systematically isolate the appropriate subset is by thinking very carefully to expose the true nature of the problem domain. It’s 100% exploratory with almost no shortcuts. Most technologies are variations in a theme and are systems in themselves, inhabiting complex spaces which require elucidation. It is remarkably easy to pursue wrong leads. Designers will therefore use various aids such as scoping the usage expectations or applying forward thinking through mock-ups to try to provoke usage responses that leak clues on which regions of the design space merit precious attention.

It is this task—exploring the vast emptiness of barren design space—which makes design mind-bendingly hard.