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Michelangelo’s Principles of Design Thinking

January 27th, 2013

Perfect Design?

Some time ago, I read an article about great art and artists.  The author recited a lengthy list of what constitutes great art.  As I read it, I thought about how his arguments applied to industrial design as easily as they did to the Renaissance.  Recently, I’ve been engaged on service design problems and I decided to write down as much as I could remember from the article as principles by which to work on these engagements.  Here are the principles I documented:

1. Simplicity of Design is Clarity of Purpose.  So often, I look at a product or service packed with functions or features and walk away without bothering to learn to use it.   You would think the default would be the simple version but when people try to get creative, they somehow feel packing more into an essay, a painting or a product makes it better.  It doesn’t   Often, it simply masks the work has no real purpose.

2. The Best Designs Can’t Be Improved Upon. Imagine a math proof with either a mistake or that is overly complex.  In time, it will be improved upon and erased from the text books.  Imagine doing something so well that you leave no room for improvement. Similarly, imagine designing a house or piece of equipment that is as comfortable or useful today as it was five hundred years ago.  Won’t it be as comfortable five hundred years from now?

3. Design Starts with Defining the Right Problem. Developing the right solution for the right problem are two design problems in one.  You are better off making sure you’ve properly defined the problem before working on a solution.  Imagine if Columbus had designed a ship capable of dealing with the end of the earth?  Obviously, Columbus redefined his problem.

4. Getting Design Right is Hard Even Though It Looks Easy.  This one is really important…especially when you juxtapose it with #1 above.  Sometimes you look at a product or service that has been elegantly designed and think – so simple, I could have done that.  Well, you probably couldn’t because it was really hard.  Imagine the simplicity of the light-bulb  yet it took Bell 1,000 attempts which he called “steps”.  Each failure is a step forward.  But there are many failures before there is success.  It is hard even if the final product is such a perfect answer that it appears to have been obvious.

5. Nature reflects the Greatest Designs.  Look around at nature.  It is especially well designed.  A trout is perfectly designed to thrive in a cold mountain stream feeding on a bustling colony of insects which in turn are perfectly designed to live between the rocks of the same stream.  Good designers copy nature.  And their work product is often described as “natural”.  One of nature’s more relaxing elements is symmetry and repetition.  Gardens are more peaceful when you don’t have one of everything but repeat patterns of colors and plants.  Isn’t there an amazing elegance to a DNA strand?

6. Treat All Your Designs as If They Were a Mistake…And You Knew It Would Be.  In other words, do it over because you’ll do it better.  In doing so, you’ll look for your mistakes and try to correct them.  That is the hard work part of it.  And since no one sees every iteration of your design, they think it was easy.  I think recognizing you can always do better is what is particularly scary about being a parent – there really isn’t a second chance.  And since you know you’ll make mistakes, you just hope your children will one day forgive you.

 

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7. A Great Design Can Be Really Scary.  More than likely, a great design so redefined the problem that the new solution won’t look anything like what current solutions look like today.  We can see today’s post-secondary education model is broken.  What will it look like in 20 years?  Would anyone in the ‘60’s have believed you if you told them that to get their news and information, they’d be reading digital content written by ordinary citizens in place of listening to Walter Cronkite?

8. To Design Well, Seek Collaboration…and Competition.  Something happens beyond ourselves when we are with each other.  It happens whether we are working together or competing.  Humans drive each other to excel.  That is why cities are so creatively vibrant. They explode with both collaboration and competition.  It is why you see two rivals push each other to excellence in sports…whether they are on the same or rival teams.  To design well, commune.

I hope my engagements yield great solutions for my clients.  I hope I help them see ways of satisfying their customers and stakeholders they’d never thought.  I hope these principles help me get them there.  Feel free to send me your’s.

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