Designing design: Conclusions

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Design is the science of the artificial – Herb Simon

[Part 12 of 12: 1) The science of the artificial 2) function, behaviour structure 3) form follows function, 4) no function in structure, 5) the medium is the message 6) types and schemas 7) aesthetics: attractive things work better 8) managing (great) expectations 9) colour 10) styles and standards 11) design solution spaces 12) conclusions]

Humans are overwhelmed with information both online and offline, a desire to understand the world around us, and for it all to make sense. So, we look for patterns and signs, and stories to reduce complexity into something more manageable.

At the same time we love to be surprised and delighted with variety, which is shown by the information users focus on most on social media and by our love of twist in the tale stories and thrillers. And, we use stories most of all to find meaning in our own lives and in everything around us.

We are moving into a most exciting time with the Internet of Things and our Digital Culture which is all part of the Connection Economy. We are only one click away from each other and our devices are all communicating with each other constantly. And, in this world we feel that we must be somehow always connected. It is difficult to disconnect for even a little while, for disconnection is our greatest fear.

Throughout this series we have looked at the various ways designers can manage our expectations and give us cues to manage how we behave with the technology before us. We have even see how designers can manage their own information overload with types and schemas. But, it seems to me that as we advance further into this digital landscape, today, the designer’s job is to now to make sure that we harness the power of technology in the right way. In the past, society was formed by technological advance, and we were just carried along with it regardless of our opinions.

We need our designers to design for the good, to protect humans from even more overwhelm and to support us as we work, and in the same way that a good design solution can come from constraints and boundaries, we need these online. Feedback with care: Hey you’ve been online for hours now, go to bed, we will all still be here later.

Designers are change agents whose job is to make the world easier for us to live in offline and online. Let us all learn to design for that – an easier world for us to live in.

Designing design: Solution spaces


[Part 11 of 12: 1) The science of the artificial 2) function, behaviour structure 3) form follows function, 4) no function in structure, 5) the medium is the message 6) types and schemas 7) aesthetics: attractive things work better 8) managing (great) expectations 9) colour 10) styles and standards 11) design solution spaces 12) conclusions]

The artificial intelligence community views a design space as something to explore as it if is a mountain or a wilderness. A space may be incomplete or the domain knowledge uncertain and this is reflected in the names of search techniques: hill climbing, branch-and-bound, hunter gatherer.

Fabulously nowadays we have massive computing power which can help us search through big data sets or solution spaces. However, in the broadest terms when we are looking at a solution space we are hoping to manage it by the following:


With constraints, we introduce boundaries which may potentially the number of solutions. It is this tension which can cause wonderful solutions such as when artists obey the haiku rules of 17 syllables: three lines of five, seven, and five syllables, to give us pared back poetry.

We can also introduce constraints by fixation on one thing such as cost, or efficiency and then we can see what solutions are possible.

Otherwise, we can use a more exploitative exploitation approach of what-if. What if we place an excessive load on this bridge? What happens then? Does the solution still work? What will we need to change to get it work?

Transformation, combination and exploration

Inside the solution space we synthesise and analyse by using some of the ideas this series has explored. We map our types and schemas or our models of aesthetics and affordances and link our function to our behaviour and then structure. But, when all else fails we can remove the constraints or even remove the boundaries or the domain knowledge which can lead us to moving outside the context.

Thinking outside the box

Sometimes designers do this on purpose, other times like the post-it note, new ideas are serendipitously discovered. SMS texting was originally invented for engineers to communicate with each other whilst working on mobile technology. Who could have anticipated that a tool which made engineers’ lives easier would appeal to mobile phone users as a cheap and cheerful way of communicating instead? The same happened to post-it notes, once the context of inventing glue was removed, the user was free to think of it as a really cool book mark.

With a solution space we can define what we are looking at, and what we are looking for, and then should we decide we want to look at it differently, or look elsewhere then we have a map and a plan, which is what all humans like to have in this information overloading world of ours.

Designing design: Great expectations


[Part 8 of 12: 1) The science of the artificial 2) function, behaviour structure 3) form follows function, 4) no function in structure, 5) the medium is the message 6) types and schemas 7) aesthetics: attractive things work better 8) managing (great) expectations 9) colour 10) styles and standards 11) design solution spaces 12) conclusions]

Managing expectations is the key to success in most areas of life, not just design.

When a design artefact is judged to be useless, it is often because it does not behave in the way the user is expecting. This is because there is a gap between what the designer intended and what the user is expecting, which in user interface design, Donald Norman calls the gulf of execution. Straddling this gulf, is the way to manage user expectations.


We all have models of how the world works (mental models), and of ourselves (self schemas) to explain and make sense of everything. In design, we have three models:

  • The designer’s model of how the artefact works.
  • The user’s model of how the artefact should work and how it actually works which changes with experience.
  • The artefact’s image of how it works  which is the way it looks which should be supported by the documentation or user manual.

These models should line up in order to match user expectations, but to do so, the designer has to provide the correct cues.



First proposed by psychologist James Gibson, affordance describes how the physical properties of an artefact will influence its function. So, round wheels are much more suitable than square wheels on your bicycle. It is easy to see that the round wheels go round, square wheels might make you think the bicycle is an uncomfortable seat.


When similar looking parts of an artefact or system work in a similar way then users can easily transfer what they have learnt from one part to another and have similar experiences. Consistency can be aesthetic, for example, the windows on a graphical user interface windows have the same layout, or the logo is the same on each restaurant chain outlet so the customer know what to expect. Consistency can also be functional such as how traffic lights work in a certain expected order: red, amber, flashing amber, green.


Constraints are used to indicate what actions are possible. These can be physical such as when barriers are put up at sporting events to direct crowds and traffic. They may also be psychological in symbols such as a skull and cross bones for poison or danger, or conventional which we learn, such as we stop when the  traffic lights are red. Or, they can be cultural such as what people wear during mourning, in some countries it is black, in others it is white.


Feedback is necessary to guide user behaviour. A dialog box can ask: Is this what you want to do? Less usefully it might say: No, you can’t do that.  The box really needs to add: but you can do this or this.


We all need a link between what we do and what happens, so if you are driving your car and turn the steering wheel left you expect it to turn left.


In previous posts, we saw that the asethetically pleasing lemon squeezer known as Juicy Salif had sacrificed some of it functionality in order to look good, as did the Lockheed Lounger. In the same way, the more function you add to an artefact, particularly in the cues which are needed to guide and manage user expectations, the less usable it becomes. Complex gadgets may look cool but if they are not functional their value is more asthetic than usable and will only satisfy a tiny section of determined users.

Designing design: The science of the artificial

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[Part 1 of 12: 1) The science of the artificial 2) function, behaviour structure 3) form follows function, 4) no function in structure, 5) the medium is the message 6) types and schemas 7) aesthetics: attractive things work better 8) managing (great) expectations 9) colour 10) styles and standards 11) design solution spaces 12) conclusions]

Design is the science of the artificial – Herb Simon

Design is the process of making ideas tangible, in order to improve anything from the task at hand, to changing how a whole government functions. And, because of the impact that design can have on society – just think about how Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web has completely changed our working lives – the design process has been studied for centuries. In Roman times, architect Vitruvius wrote in his De architectura that the human figure is a great example of proportion which in turn inspired Leonardo da Vinci to draw his Vitruvian Man. Design sometimes imitates nature whilst performing the science of the artificial.

Different ways of designing Design

There are several schools of thought when studying design, and sometimes these terms are used interchangeably.

  • Design theory draws on Architectural and Art theory such as the work of Vitruvius and the philosophically-based Aesthetics. Much research is done using mathematics, which is logical given that there many satisfying mathematical designs in nature: The golden ratio, fractals, rule of thirds, and Fibonnaci’s sequence, to name but a few. Sometimes design theory is viewed as the superset of design science and design thinking.
  • Design Science (or design research) studies the best way to understand, teach and perform design, whilst developing tools to support or automate design tasks.
  • Design thinking often focuses on ambiguous problems where success has no defined outcome. This approach is bigger than the design needed to create a deliverable which can be judged as satisfactory, by the client or customer.
  • Design Aesthetics is sometimes used interchangeably with commercial design as a way to produce aesthetically pleasing products in order to have a competitive advantage. Here we see how and why marketing has become inextricably linked to design – just think Apple.

Redesigning design

Designer Don Norman has said that we are all designers, which is partially true, as everywhere we go, we design our spaces in our houses and at our desks. It’s one thing to reorganise your bedroom but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we could all design a complex socio-techical system like the ones, for example, which exist in hospitals where patients, multidisciplinary teams of surgeons, consultants, nurses, and computer systems must all interact, schedule, and record everything from consultations, booking surgery slots, courses of treatment, and follow-up appointments that make up a whole journey which might occur over many years.

It does, however, mean as Architect Paul Grillo says, in Form Function and Design that:

Design is everybody’s business: we live in it, we eat in it, we pray and play in it.

For technology is constantly changing, and so is our society – just think of the need for Simplexity and the Internet of Things in our new Digital Culture, – and so is design, as it expands to support humans in their creativity and communication in an ever more complex world.

And, so I am starting a new blog series where I will look at individual design principles or theories which try to support humans as they create and communicate.

Simplexity and the Internet of Things

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What is now proved was once only imagined
– William Blake

In the brilliant (alas, cancelled) Forever series, Episode 17: Social Engineering, Detective Jo Martinez, and her ME Dr Henry Morgan are called to the apartment of a young murder victim whose flat switches itself on whilst they are there. The morning radio comes on, the coffee maker starts to percolate, the heating switches on, and the blinds open, all controlled by an alarm on the victim’s phone.

The victim turns out to be a Faceless hactivist who hacks into Times Square’s billboards to play footage of politicians behaving badly, and into New York City’s municipal systems to alter everything from traffic lights to residents database information. So, it makes sense he would wire up his creature comforts to make his flat more ambient. The only downside, according to the NYPD cybercrime unit, is that his network was hacked. Someone logged in to turn on his boiler and cut the pilot light, which resulted in his being gassed. Murder by remote control.

The story might be fiction, but in reality, having a wired flat is very much a reality. According to the US Federal Trade Commission there are around 25 billion devices connected to the Internet which will double by 2050.

These devices are available in every context from heart monitoring implants to field fire-fighting search and rescue operations. Each device collects data and then autonomously flows the data between other devices using APIs, data formats and network protocol stacks in order to improve overall performance.

It sounds complex, but when coupled with a familiar device like a coffee machine and resulting nice ambiance, Mmm smell the coffee, the result is one of simplexity – an emerging theory which balances the need for simplicity and complexity, and the design focus for the future of the Internet of Things (IoT).

In June this year, Wired magazine produced a supplement about the connected home, 30-odd pages full of futuristic devices that are already on the market and connect to the IoT. A few of my favourites were:

  • The Triby Fridge Memo, an e-ink display you put on the fridge and when you write on it, it sends messages to the rest of the family.
  • The smarter am app which will customise your coffee, so if your fitness tracker says you slept badly, it will make you a double espresso to get you up and at ’em.

Gimmicks aside (cocktail mixer and fizzy water dispenser, yes please), a really useful one is the CO2 detector which in the event of an emergency would talk to you, your thermostat, and turn off your boiler.

The biggest problem us consumers have is deciding who will look after our smart homes. Is it Google with Nest? Or Apple and its golden handcuffs of proprietory software? Shame really, as these simplex gadgets have been around for many years just waiting on an industry standard to allow them to talk to each other.

But, it is not just the devices in this ambient intelligence interestingly enough which need monitoring, it is us humans. HCI designers have been saying for years the human is a factor in the design. With IoT, this is truer than ever before. Humans become devices to be monitored.

One way is with physiological computing. The physiology of a human is monitored and used as input to a system. So, if you arrive home and are a bit hot, your home might turn the heating down. Or, a computer game could modify its level of difficulty according to the amount of times you shake the controller in frustration.

Feeling wired: The human as a thing

Recently, Douglas Coupland asked in the FT: How much data am I generating? Involuntarily and otherwise. Everywhere we go, we generate data with Oyster cards and shopping bills at Tesco. Coupland wonders which algorithm is at work mining away in some big data pool in order to learn everything about us. His main fear is that it will all be monetised and we will end up being part of some sort of pay-per-click click junkies.

Ironically when I reread Coupland’s article online, it kept asking me if I wanted to tweet a quote. And, often when signing up for something online, I am asked to share this with friends on Facebook. Just imagine a wired house of consumer products: You’ve just left a note on the  Triby Fridge Memo, share this with your friends. Your coffee is a double espresso today, tweet this to your boss. Gah!

But, it is not just posting online which causes oversharing and potential security risks. Many people don’t change the settings on their new devices when they bring them home. So, devices are left to broadcast openly across the Internet which allows a would be burglar to scan local IP space and then gain access to footage of people at home, build up a pattern of behaviour and then break in, when everyone is out. To say nothing of the virtual visitors who tiptoe around and tamper with your systems when you are at home.

But even those humans who change the passwords on their devices, might still write their passwords on post-it notes and stick them somewhere everyone can see them, or worse still, use the same password everywhere. Designers know that humans are the weakest link in any system, which is why biometrics are being proposed as the way forward. If we use what humans have already it will be less painful than implanting chips under our skin or needing to remember our wearables.

We are all unique

We are all unique, well, not really, our fingerprints, contrary to popular belief, are not unique identifiers, but the retinal scan has an error rate of 1 in 10 million – not bad! Even so, if someone wants to access your system they will. Using brute force attacks as a starting point, it is easy to imagine someone compiling a database of fingerprints or even retinal scans to virtually or physically enter your home. To counter this, unique biometric identifiers are being explored such as gait analysis and Nymi’s heartbeat recognition.

Say the intruders have got in and left with your best kit, everything is not lost, the broadening application of block chain authenticity could help you retrieve them. It is possible to stamp your devices, rather like your bicycle.

Up until now Bitcoin has been used as cryptocurrency a form of money that can be transferred securely and anonymously across a widely distributed peer-to-peer network. The Bitcoin blockchain is an auditable ledger of all the transactions that have occurred on the network so far. It is a trustless system because the Bitcoin network itself is guaranteed to keep a fair and accurate record of which bitcoins belong to whom. Removing the emphasis on currency and keeping the blockchain technology, it is possible to track the history of individual devices and keep a ledger of data exchanges between it and other devices, web services, and human users.

The only downside is creating massive data trails, but when you have lots of devices in your home, your office, and in cities talking to each other, to humans, to the Internet, well we are talking a lot of data anyway. Plus more machines needed to process it into something meaningful. How much energy will the IoT need? Currently, 25% of UK energy is consumed in the home and this will only increase.

Sustainability in simplexity

Panasonic in Japan has created the first sustainable smart town called Fujisawa. It is built on the site of an old Panasonic factory and is designed for a population of 3,000 people.

The town has a smart grid with everything connected to it. Each house and apartment block has solar panels, and fuel-cell generators which generate and redistribute energy around the house, and then the town grid juggles all these variables of renewable technology and town demands.

Engineers anticipate a 70% drop in each house’s carbon footprint, and have anticipated earthquakes too. Enough power can be stored for three days of off-grid operations.

And, this is where the IoT gets a whole lot more interesting. If we can use technology to generate energy and redistribute the resources that we have across towns and eventually countries, then there is the hope, that one day everyone the world over will be able to wake up in a secure home to listen to the sounds of their creature comforts making their home an ambient one.

The IoT has the potential to redistribute the future more evenly. Simplexity at its best.