Tim Brown on “The Need for More Darwin and Less Newton in Our Approach to Design”

Tim Brown

Tim Brown

In 1969, Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon noted: “Engineering, medicine, business, architecture, and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent — not with how things are, but with they might be — in short, with design. Every one designs to devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. Design, so construed, is the core of all professional training.”

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In his contribution to Rotman on Design published by University of Toronto Press (2013), Tim Brown argues that “the complexity we often face today requires us to think more like Darwin, who encouraged us to think about constant evolution, even if we understand things on a small scale.

“As designers and as leaders, I believe that we need to start emulating Darwin a bit more and to stop emulating Newton. Following are some aspects of a more Darwinian approach to design.”

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1. We should give up on the idea of designing objects and think instead about designing behaviours. Behaviours are about the interrelationships between people and the objects that exist in the world around us.

2. We need to think more about how information flows. In fact, before we work on designing a better solution, we need to get better at understanding the complex system as it is today, and what information is already flowing through it.

3. We must recognize that faster evolution is based on faster iteration. The faster we do things, the faster we learn and the faster we improve.

4. We must embrace selective emergence. So far, natural biological systems appear to be way ahead of us in dealing with complexity, but we do have one advantage over them: with biological systems, all of the improvements are random — they are based on mutation.

5. We need to focus on fitness. One way of thinking about fitness in the organizational realm is the concept of purpose. Organizations that have a clear purpose tend to be able to design in a less top-down way.

6. We must accept the fact that design is never done. Whatever is designed is then in the hands of those for whom it was designed where it will be adapted and modified and used in ways that had not have occurred to the designer.

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Source: Rotman on Design: The Best on Design Thinking from Rotman Magazine, co-edited by Roger Martin and Karen Christensen and published by University of Toronto Press (2013)

Tim Brown is the CEO and president of IDEO and author of Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, published by HarperBusiness (2009).

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