Is design evolution?

Darwins finch, designed by nature

In order to find an answer to this question I started checking my definition of design by looking into a tool that I use every day. A chair. The one I’m sitting on while writing is commonly referred to as a ‘design-chair’. It’s a Mirra desk chair designed by Herman Miller and has a prominent shape, which comes partly from it’s functionality. You will recognize it as a chair, but it’s not how we imagine a chair. It’s better. It’s made for good, long sitting sessions, without the usual pain in my back or ass or neck or shoulders. And it looks nice. So a design-chair is nice in its use, and with that suits to its purpose. Of course, this can be a coincidence, but Herman Miller made quite a few chairs which all add up to their purpose. They define a situation (long sitting) and by a process of decisions they come up with improvement. The better the decisions, the better the solution. When the design is properly tested, and they are satisfied, they will produce it. The designer defines a focus on facets which he believes will deliver a successful outcome. After production the object, in this case the chair, will be used by the user in many different situations. Their experience, the amount of production, marketing, durability and many other facets of the chair will define its success. Not the object, but all the facets of this process of finding a suitable solution and bringing it in existence is design.

How does this process differ from evolution? If seeds of a tree are hard to eat for birds because they’re hard to open, the bird has a situation that could use improvement. By chaos, some birds have a slightly crooked beak, which makes it easier to crack the seeds. A feature that suits its purpose better, and by that increases the chance for surviving. If its a suitable solution, the bird with adapted beak will stay around for longer, which gives him time to reproduce and leave an imprint on its species. Is this bird now wearing a designed beak? Yes, I think so. The beak is ‘designed by nature’ in a process called evolution.

Evolution is quite a slow method for design. It lacks consciousness. Every iteration takes a lifetime in the actual world, and a good design by evolution takes hundreds of lifetimes to settle. For speeding up the design process the human mind is an amazing tool. It can be used to create an abstract instance of reality to test the design in assumptions of the real world. The more accurate this instance of reality is, the better the chance that the outcome will survive in real-life. The art of re-creating reality to verify the outcome is research.
This verifycation by recreation asks for standardisation and brings interresting contradiction in research and design. Where most research processes try to keep the chaos out, most design processes try to keep it in.

By combining research with design you’ll find more resemblance with evolution. It combines the repeating itterations of life with the new options that are deliverd by chaos in a constant fight for balance. There should always be some unknown variables in every design process. There should be inaccuracies, that most likely happen in actual experiments in this un-abstracted reality. Without the unknown variables, there will be an end to new solutions.
A big part of this unknown valuables is inserted in the process by use of the human brain. The brain stores huge amounts of data that can be accesed and connected in the form of free-associations, seemingly at random in a split second. When done by designers, who generaly know a lot about a lot, but are not experts, there will be a lot of surprising new connections that can bring new solutions to life.

The function of design research is to reflect on the design process and see how different methods influence the outcome. It gives possibility to improve the process and invites the designer to design the process of design. The methods defined by research should be used as guides to the process, not as rules. By making methods too rigid you’re ruling out the chaos, and with that the chance on truly new solutions.
In other words, evolution is to life what design is to living.

~ Naan Eldering, Sept. 2013




Where good ideas come from – the seven parts of innovation ~ Steven Johnson
The design of everyday things ~ Donald A. Norman
Voor een echt succesvol leven ~ Bas Haring

Internet articles
Why designers should seek complexity ~ Matthieu Mingasson
Design Thinking: a usefull myth ~ Donald A. Norman
Rethinking Design Thinking ~ Donald A. Norman