From Newton to Darwin – how design is responding to the challenges of complexity
by Tim Brown

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Design in the 21st century is grappling with a crisis of identity. Despite the unprecedented popularity of design thinking within contemporary business and society design as a practice is being challenged by many of the same disruptions affecting every aspect of modern life. In short, design is struggling to deal with complexity.


While the process of design was not codified until the 1960’s through the work of Herbert Simon and others, the act of design is as old as humanity. Each and every stone-age axe was designed. Carefully honed to meet the specific needs of the maker and his immediate community. Jumping forward several thousand years, it was the industrial revolution that created the stage for the emergence of the professional practice of design as we perceive it today. Artists, craftsmen and philosophers such as William Morris and John Ruskin responded to the explosion of mass manufacturing with its attendant poor quality and ‘bad taste’. They argued that society needed designers to mediate between the needs and desires of people and the inherent inhumanity of industrial technology. Morris is credited with creating one of the first professional design practices with the foundation of Morris and Company in 1861. Over the succeeding 150 years design proliferated to the point where, by the end of the twentieth century, it touched every aspect of life in modern industrial society. Designers shape the products we use, the services we experience, the cities we live in, the software we immerse ourselves in, the brands we consume from and even the organizations we work in.


As time has gone by the complexity of the systems designers touch has increased considerably and our expectations of the quality of those experiences constantly rises. We now expect using an automobile to be as satisfying and seamless as owning a luxury purse or well made piece of clothing. Airlines strive, with variable success, to make flying as delightful as listening to a favorite piece of music on iTunes. City planners and urban designers have long strived to make cities as ‘fit for purpose’ as the best industrial products. Yet, as we interact with these more complex systems that have, in theory, been designed to meet our needs our experiences so often range from disappointment to outright dismay.


To understand why we need to go back to that stone-age proto-designer crafting his axe. He has probably made countless axe heads and spear points in his career from apprentice tool maker to master craftsman. He knows every aspect of the material and can predict with high certainty the outcome of every design decision he makes as he strikes the piece of flint with his granite hammer-stone. Because the design is simple he can predict the outcome and therefore shape it with high degrees of control.


This is exactly how most designers think and work today even though their task maybe infinitely more complex. This is what I think of as the Newtonian model of design. Just like Newton’s laws of motion that can predict the a future state of a system based on knowledge of the current state, so designers attempt to predict and control the future state of an experience. The tool with which the designer attempts to exert that control is the blueprint. The specific description of the design that determines, often with little flexibility, exactly how the design will be executed.


Unfortunately, as with Newton’s laws, these predictions go awry when they are applied to all but the simplest situations. Buildings are designed that do not anticipate changing modes of use. Software applications are designed that do not account for the variations in context and expertise of users. Products are designed with no account toward the negative impacts they have on precious natural systems. Designers are stuck with an approach that seems to be incapable of facing the complexity of the challenges being posed today.


However, there are alternatives. In science we have migrated from mindsets largely dominated by the physics of Newton to ones guided by an equally influential scientist who lived just 150 years later, Charles Darwin. We see the principles of evolutionary biology being applied across multiple fields of science, often underpinning our most important technologies ranging from personalized medicine to the internet. I believe the same can be true of design. Open ended, emergent, evolutionary approaches to the design of complex systems can result in more robust and useful outcomes and we are seeing evidence of this in some of today’s most successful and exciting innovations.


The democratization of design via platforms such as Kickstarter, Etsy, Pinterest and Open IDEO is allowing thousands of new designs to be funded, designed, shared and sold more quickly and cheaply than previously possible. Design is being put into the hands of users so that they can respond to local needs in ways centrally operating designers can never do. 3D printing is even allowing those same users to manufacture for themselves. Technologies such as genetic algorithms allow solutions to evolve rapidly in response to their environment while designers are learning how to code behaviors into both humans and machines. Coding is an alternative to the blueprint as the principle method by which designers act on the world. Codes can be based on simple rules and can act in relatively simple ways and yet have large scale, emergent and responsive outcomes. In other words it is through designing via code that designers can bring the skills of the stone-age axe maker to bear on the complex systems of the 21st century.


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