Design Principles To Live By

“How might we…?” Is a question designers ask themselves all the time in the workplace. Stemming from Design Thinking, this user-entered methodology helps designers come up with creative solutions to all kinds of complex problems.

However, when you think about it, isn’t this also the question of a lifetime? What can I do today, that will get me closer to my desired life in the future? Indeed, Design Thinking is not exclusive to designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering and business have practiced it.

Every day, whether we are aware of it or not, we are designing. Every decision, every choice we make (and don’t make) changes the architecture of our lives.

To live a life by design means taking meaningful actions towards achieving a desired lifestyle. It means purposefully designing each element of our life, and I believe it means being an essentialist too. Because good design takes into consideration the wisest possible investment of time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution, by doing only what is essential. Therefore, essentialism is not about getting more things done, but rather the right things done.

Design Thinking has grown in popularity since it was first introduced by Ideo founder David Kelley. It has since then been taught in design schools all across the world. However, many designers have recently come forward criticizing this universal methodology. Natasha Jen, graphic designer at Pentagram, argues that “such simplified framework can’t possibly be applied to everything. When solving design problems, we must also look at history, case studies and other qualitative research. Design thinking can tend to settle for the bottom line”. Its research can often become a loop of self-thought that is unrepresentative of society’s needs and ignorant of the consequences it may lead, such as waste and pollution.

How can we elevate the standards of design for the bigger picture? In this tech era, all needs to be done fast, from fast food to fast bootcamps. Does the essentialist nature of design thinking understands the subtlety of better things? Does form really follow function?

According to Jen, “Beauty is precision”. Beautiful things elevate its perceived quality. Our subconscious always tells us that pleasant things work better. In the human mind, there are numerous areas responsible for what we refer to as emotion. Firstly, the visceral level, which involves automatic, pre-wired responses, such as our innate love for symmetry for example. Second, the behavioural level refers to the controlled aspects of human action, where we unconsciously analyze a situation so as to develop goal-directed strategies most likely to prove effective in the shortest time, or with the fewest actions, possible. Finally, the reflective level is the home of reflection, of conscious thought, of learning of new concepts and generalizations about the world. This is the highest form of emotional design. It considers the rationalization of a product or experience — Can I tell a story about it?

There is a significant correlation between design and our emotions that should never been ignored. There is even a term for it: Emotional design. It is the concept of creating designs that evoke emotions that result in positive user experience. We should, as designers, aim to reach people on all three cognitive levels to create a positive association with a product or experience.

For a great emotional design, we first need a proper functional design to work with. But remember, there should always be some fun in functional. Some ways to incorporate emotional design could be to give a little personality to the work. Slack does this perfectly by crafting their copy to the right tone of their audience (e.g. “You’re here! The day just got better”). Steve Jobs is a known advocate of how all functional products should also have a spirit. I believe this mindset is what gave Apple the edge in this industry. The entire brand was built around the concept that function alone is not enough. They create products with the intention that their appearance should support and enhance its functionality to the point that the two seem inseparable.

There has been however a status quo for the longest time until the industrial revolution. “Form follows function” was the design principle we relied on; the shape of building or object should primarily relate its intended function or purpose. This translates into the architecture and innovations of the late 19th and early 20th century. 

Some slowly started to defy this principle, arguing that this principle would eventually put us all out of business. Industrial designers Raymond Loewy formulated a principle called “MAYA”, which stands for Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. This principle holds the idea that product designs are bound by functional constraints of math, materials, and logic, but their acceptance is constrained by social expectations. This means that new technologies should be made as familiar as possible, while familiar technologies should be made to surprise. It would indeed be very difficult to leverage product differentiation if simple objects were to remain reduced to a single optimal form.

It is also imperative to say that we have shifted from a passive to an interactive design era. Remember when all a car ever did, was get you from point A to point B? We now expect some sort of connection with our objects. We talk with them, they respond. They know things about us, and sometimes make our lives better, easier. So we get attached to them, we form a relationship that is very much emotional. We even project intentions, behaviours, and traits onto them. It’s scary, but it’s kind of beautiful, no? “A basic design is always functional, but a great one will also say something.”

So how can we deliver emotional design that give rise to positive emotions?

User experience strategies should consider the entire human experience, including emotions. With the power of user research and product testing, we can effectively gauge the emotional effect of a product or experience on a user. Deep research and user mapping can also help innovators identify pain points when using a product. Designers should eliminate all frustrations someone may encounter when performing a task, but also strive to find opportunities to bring the user pleasure.

Applying these principles to daily life would mean being aware of how our environment and interactions shape our life by design. Living in a beautiful space, creating meaningful friendships, taking care of our bodies - these are all, in my opinion, important life design principles essential to a pleasurable human experience. 

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