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The First Law of Design Dynamics


Much like the First Law of Thermodynamics, which expresses the conservation of energy between various states, my imagined First Law of Design Dynamics states: "We are unsolvable problems."

Or, to put it another way: Problems persist, and we are an expression of them.

The problems we face as human beings are wound together so tightly, they only improve or degrade over time against a man-made metric—they do not go away. We create them, we attempt to solve them, and those solutions are expressed through the lens of our humanity.

Over time, many of these design problems prove insoluble—in the same manner that we can barely describe our human selves through word or deed, let alone sketch the outline of whom we would like to become over a lifetime.

Why, then, would you devote your waking days to being a designer?

Because in the process of shoveling rock from Pile A to Pile B, we never cease to generate exceptions to our man-made rules. We continually thrust our hand into the magician's black hat, pulling forth endless wonders that never seem to have originally fit within such a confined space.

A design solution, in the grand scheme of our universe, rarely solves any matter of great import forever. The limits of our efforts are delimited by years, if not minutes. But for this brief period of time, designers can express the change desired in the world.

Beyond the arts, there is no other discipline that allows us, in the words of designer Brian Collins, to "make hope visible." You rarely see this change until it's been expressed through something that has been designed.

We are the limiting factor, however. Our lives are shaped by design, but never solved.

If you're looking to uncover the mechanics of our world, become a scientist first. Design solutions rarely persist, unless cross-bred with the rigor of science.

If you're looking to describe the grand gesture of our future society, become a politician. Far-reaching design solutions for our societies require intelligent meta-decisions from those who control the government.

However, if you're looking to change the fabric of our humanity, be a designer first and foremost. We actively create the future, rather than waiting for the future to remake us.

The variables may change over time, but the equation of our humanity still holds true. How we express it is what creates a difference.



Beautiful and much-needed post. Reminds me of Vilem Flusser's article "Design: Obstacle for/to the Removal of Obstacles" -

The EcoDesign Foundation used to insist that there is no such thing as a 'Sustainable X or Y'; there is only ever a 'more sustainable (use of) X or Y', or what the EcoDesign Foundation used to call 'sustainments' -

Chris Butler


I've been lurking on your blog for a long time now- I often read your posts and then send links to them to friends and coworkers. This one, though simpler than many of your posts, really captivated me.

You hit on a tension of design that I'm often reminded of- that as long as we continue to design systems for people, people will continue to require us to redesign them. I suppose that reality can be looked at both positively, as a self-propagating cycle that will keep us forever busy, or negatively- as a futile and never-ending process. I think it's probably healthy to see it both ways at different times. This tension is probably a most basic human experience- even for someone who expects things to tend toward decline, it would be maddening to actually live that way rather than endeavor to make things better in some way.

- Chris

David Sherwin

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Chris and Cameron. I agree--it is the tension between planned order and our tendencies towards disarray that never ceases to define us.

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