Design is like a Hand of Cards

Each design is a new hand of cards. Not only are the cards we’re holding different every time, but so are the hands of the other players. Our hand is our own knowledge of the design project, and the hands of the others are the constraints that we must deal with.

The difficulty with design is that each design project has different problems to solve. While we want to be able to generalize those problems, doing so actually hurts our chances at creating an appropriate solution to our specific problems.

Designs, when successful, are successful because they acknowledge and deal with the unique constraints of the project at hand. When not successful, designs usually fail because someone didn’t fully understand the constraints of the project. It is dangerous to generalize constraints.

Each design is a new hand of cards. Not only are the cards we’re holding different every time, but so are the hands of the other players. Our hand is our own knowledge of the design project, and the hands of the others are the constraints that we must deal with.

The difficulty with design is that each design project has different problems to solve. While we want to be able to generalize those problems, doing so actually hurts our chances at creating an appropriate solution to our specific problems.

Designs, when successful, are successful because they acknowledge and deal with the unique constraints of the project at hand. When not successful, designs usually fail because someone didn’t fully understand the constraints of the project. It is dangerous to generalize constraints.

What we can generalize are strategies for design, whereby we discover and deal with the specific problems that affect our project in an attempt to systematically solve them and move on.

What we can’t do is expect that someone without intimate knowledge of the problems at hand can solve them for us. That’s why we’re seeing a return to in-house design, where the best designers are not the ones who have designed the most things for the most companies for the most money, but have the most knowledge of the constraints that the design must solve.

In other words, a solution in one design shouldn’t be replicated in another, unless the constraints are the exact same in both projects. Usually, they are not.

Despite the hopes of hurried designers everywhere, there are no design principles that we can blindly follow to produce effective designs. What there are are behavioral, sensory, and social principles that we can leverage to make our designs more effective, but in utilizing them we must adapt them to our unique situation. There is no function by which we can solve design without knowing the unique parameters with which we are given.

Likewise, three fives beat two aces every time.

Published: March 19th, 2006

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