Design with Intent

“His was a chariot of pure intent in a city out of control,” Hockenberry remembers. “Design blew it all away for a moment.” And this matters, he adds, because “an object imbued with intent has power. It’s treasure; we’re drawn to it. An object devoid of intent is random, imitative, it repels us. It is junkmail to be thrown away. This is what we must demand of our lives, of our objects, of our things, our circumstances: living with intent.”

John Hockenberry's TED talk

I think this was one of my favorite TED talks from last week, and I have a feeling it may be an odd one. Hockenberry brought up a really interesting point: that we are all, in some ways, designers, that "intent is an essential part of humanity." This rang true to me, this was interesting and exciting to me, this idea that I wasn't the only one with the tendency to be repelled by things that just sort of, happened to be, and fascinated by objects created through passion and intent.

It seemed to bring to mind one of the perplexities of the design field: that it is so varied, that there are so many forms of it, and marked by a huge diversity of technical skills, educations, processes, end results, and just about everything you could think of. There are graphic designers, type designers, interior designers, architects, product designers, web designers, UI designers, UX designers, fashion designers, systems designers... This is a fact that I think many design researchers have struggled with. But then it gets complicated - I took a class in my senior year at Stanford, Mechanical Engineering 112: Mechanical Systems Design. There is software design that is done, and software architects, and chip design, and just generally all sorts of design that goes into the problems faced by engineers. There is organization design, and the design of scientific experiments, and art, and many other things that confuse the designer if they think too hard about it. The general approach is just to ignore it - but maybe this is just reinforcing the power of design and intent, reinforcing the fact that this is one of those things that fundamentally matters to humankind.

I previously posted a blog entry on the fact that what differentiates designers from many of these other fields is our process around finding and formulating the right problem to solve. This is true - while many people can, once given an intent, design something that fits that intent, it's really hard to understand what intent should be when you start to get into fuzzier areas. As Facebook thinks about a redesign, what should their intent be? The broadest and least useful answer is, "the redesign should make money," but the need for something a tad more useful is obvious. Maybe something like, "the redesign should make it easy to stay apprised of the activities of a few close friends." These are the kinds of things that are generally referred to as design principles, actually - intent that has a point of view, an opinion about what works and what doesn't work. And that was why I was sort of jolted by Bret Victor's recent talk:

"His principle was a specific nugget of insight… He divided the world to right and wrong in this fairly objective way."

Bret Victor's "Inventing on Principle"

Victor is, of course, talking about establishing a general principle, a general design principle, for all your life projects. Victor's is that "the object should provice creators with an immediate connection with what they're creating" - Victor phrases this more as a needs statement: "Creators need an immediate connection with what they're creating." But this isn't the only lexical coincidence: the words "nugget" and "insights" are actually exactly the words used when I have my own introduction to needfinding back in school. What Victor is talking about is so like the process of design - the process of discovering a principle which we can use to move towards bigger, better ideals (such as Victor's ideal that "Ideas are important.").

And that's because what Victor is talking about is the process of design. Maybe that's what I'm getting at: that the real skill of product designers such as myself is that it doesn't take us years to discover insights, but rather that we have institutionalized this process of finding principles for new things based on insights. That we are students of process when it comes to designing, that we are constantly searching for that insight, that we refuse to build without it. Intentionality in objects comes as much from the fact that they've been designed to fulfill an intent, but also from the fact that that intent itself was designed. On the other hand, each of us is a designer at heart - and that's why, when we find principles on which to design, we feel a bit more satisfied, a bit more human. It is why designers take so much time and struggle to explain their principles to other stakeholders in a project. It is why 'evolution' is not design as evolution has no intent, and 'intelligent design' includes the word design in its name. It is probably why I cringe slightly at the idea of evolutionary design, as that seems a bit of an oxymoron to me.

This weekend, a friend and I watched the movie Hugo, which really resonated with this idea of intent - the all-too-human connection with our principles, our beliefs and insights, as well as the work we put out into the world. That work, after all, encapsulates our intent.