Creativity & Happenstance

“I love systems and despise happenstance.”
— Massimo Vignelli

Vignelli was a modernist designer of the old-school. This quote is from his manifesto, The Vignelli Canon (downloadable for free here).

In Vignelli’s view the goal of design was not the pursuit of beauty or self-expression, but the forensic application of guiding principles to every project. He saw design not merely as an intellectual process but as a severe, ascetic discipline. Using Swiss grids and a limited type palette – often only a single font per project, usually Helvetica – he constructed rigid, scaleable systems to drive every design decision, leaving no room for exploration or accidental discovery.

This approach led to a body of work that is austere, finely-balanced and entirely predictable. When function is the driving design principle – as to a New York subway rider – it’s perfect.

For everyone else, it’s a little bit boring.

Designers traffic in two main commodities: ideas (the concept phase) and execution (the design phase). Some of the best ideas arrive accidentally. This is why creative teams engage in blue sky thinking by brainstorming in caffeinated groups, looking for happy accidents by smashing disparate thoughts together like particles in a collider until something interesting pops out.

The same is true for execution. For every good idea there is an unlimited number of possible design solutions, and most of them you haven’t thought of yet. This is why designers engage in unguided “design exploration” by trying a lot of things quickly, throwing stuff at the wall – figuratively, but sometimes also literally – to see what new sparks emerge. Organized chaos is simply part of the process.

Happenstance is how new things are born. If your toolkit is limited to Helvetica and a Swiss grid, you can make a very effective design system – but you’ll miss out on the magic of discovery.


Fuzzy People

People are fuzzy around the edges, and so is their behaviour.

Users aren’t a very reliable source of hard data. They have ideas, but often no more than one or two. They have needs but may not know what they are. They think they know what they want, but they probably don’t. And they can rarely imagine things that don’t yet exist.

“If I had asked people what they wanted,” said Ford, “they would have said faster horses.”

They are a good source of soft data, however – although gathering soft data from fuzzy humans requires more indirect methods: observing them in their natural habitats, empathizing with their worldviews, and asking indirect questions – including why a lot – to get to the root of the problem we want to solve.

Taking into account the human factor is an integral part of design research: you have to frame the question correctly to get to the right answer. Building a better mousetrap won’t help if the mice have started a colony in the basement.


Every Good Idea is the Child of Failed Parents

Nobody strives to fail, but when it comes to ideas, constructive failure is the price of success.

In start-up culture they call this “failing fast” – the quicker you fall on your face, the more you learn for the next iteration. In design thinking, feedback loops (also called design cycles) do the same job.

When I worked at Microsoft ideating on interface concepts for non-standard models like touchscreens or control-at-a-distance using voice or motion activation, feedback loops were a process imperative. Teams iterated quickly, sometimes in the same room, and regrouped as often as every hour to review thinking, discuss emerging ideas and plaster every surface in coloured post-its. Tight design cycles drove the project forward fast – the brightest ideas of the early morning might be a distant memory by lunch – with the shortcomings of any explorative thread quickly made apparent through immediate feedback that informed the next iteration.

The benefits of this consensus-based process are easy to see: good ideas are afforded a stay of execution that allows them to survive at least one more loop; bad ideas are discarded and take no more of anyone’s time.

Embrace constructive failure as a necessary procedural factor of creativity. Reaching “success” too early deprives the ideation process of invaluable future feedback loops.


No Problem is a Blank Canvas

Design thinking as a discipline involves a duality that is hard to avoid: a careful balance between the needs of the user, who is the source of the problem, and the business, which finances its solution.

It’s easy to blue-sky a solution to an interesting problem (“if airlines simply replaced seats with VR pods, the problem of uncomfortable plane travel would be solved!”) but if the solution isn’t commercially viable – not to mention technically feasible – then it’s not much of an answer. Without taking in account practical constraints, no-limit design thinking is a classroom exercise – effective for emboldening creativity, but only a stepping stone to real innovation.

True, human-centric design functions inside the boundaries of real-world constraints, while still addressing users’ needs, motivations and behaviours. The right solutions are found where the two worlds intersect.