Design is calculating

shapesI’ve been reading a brilliant book called “Shape”, by George Stiny.

One of the arguments that Stiny makes is that when we design with shapes we do a kind of “visual calculating”. It’s very different from the kind of calculating that we do with numbers, but it has a validity of its own.

As one of the blurbs on the back says,

“…Stiny’s book shows us that even the simplest shape is both ambiguous and perfectly clear.”

—Jonathan Cagan

This ambiguity means, for example, that I can add a square to a square and end up with four triangles, rotate the triangles and create a square with a cross through it. That kind of visual play is easy to see, hard to explain in words, and impossible to fully describe in numbers.

I think, by analogy, something similar applies to experience design. It is the emotional heart of a customer experience which matters. Great experiences aren’t made by processes or rules (terrible ones often are), they’re a creative act of design that happens when you interact with customers and empathise deeply with what they want.

It’s almost impossible to describe this process in words or numbers, but we know it when we experience it as customers. That doesn’t mean it lacks rigour, just that it’s a different kind of logic than our models are able to capture. As Stiny says, it’s always personal.

“Seeing and saying what I see are always personal. There are no rote results, whether I copy what I see or call this something else—descriptions don’t count. My eyes have only their own way of knowing. That’s a good reason to calculate, and it’s why calculating works in design.”

—George Stiny

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