Some design principles

November 29, 2009 — 15 Comments


I had the great pleasure of spending a few days last week with some eminent designers and design thinkers as part of a World Economic Forum event in Dubai. We were participating as one of over 70 WEF Global Agenda Councils consisting of experts from around the world studying how to improve global institutions. As the Global Agenda Council on Design we felt that one of our greatest contributions might be to help other councils embed design thinking in their deliberations. We created a set of design principles that we felt might be a useful guide and I am listing them here:

Design is an agent of change that enables us to understand complex changes and problems, and to turn them into something useful. Tackling today’s global challenges will require radical thinking, creative solutions and collaborative action. Here is a set of principles identified by the Global Agenda Council on Design that could help your Council to develop ideas and strategies to address the complex problems facing us all.

Transparent: Complex problems require simple, clear and honest solutions.

Inspiring: Successful solutions will move people by satisfying their needs
giving meaning to their lives, and raising their hopes and expectations.

Transformational: Exceptional problems demand exceptional solutions that
may be radical and even disruptive.

Participatory: Effective solutions will be collaborative, inclusive and
developed with the people who will use them.

Contextual: No solution should be developed or delivered in isolation but
should instead recognize the social, physical and information systems it is part of.

Sustainable: Every solution needs to be robust, responsible and designed
with regard to its long-term impact on the environment and society.

What is missing? What would you change?

We are interested in distributing these principles further if there is interest.

The members of the council on design who contributed to the principles are:

Paola Antonelli, Carl Bass, Craig Branigan, Tim Brown, Brian Collins, Hilary Cottam, Kigge Mai Hivid, Larry Keeley, Chris Luebkeman, John Maeda, Mokena Makeka, Toshiko Mori, Kohei Nishiyama, Bruce Nussbaum, Alice Rawsthorn, Sudhir Sharma, Jens Martin Skibstead, Milton Tan, Arnold Wasserman.

Tim Brown


15 responses to Some design principles

  1. Some alternate words for some of the above and some newbies.

    Sustainable >> Social Business Model.
    For e.g., It’s not enough to build a water pump for people who need water. Build a pump that is also a business for people who need water bc they probably also need money.

    Participatory>> Co-creation.
    Professional designers need to co-create with end users in order to create remarkable designs that are adopted with enthusiasm.

    Contextual>> Systems Integration
    Designers need to be aware of the “places” where people already gather. Why make yet another website, for e.g., when all a user probably needs is a facebook app.

    And some add-ons:

    Scope, not scale.
    A lot of fantastic design is specific to the culture that uses it or the landscape in which it is to be used. This is a good thing and we need to embrace it.

    Coordination of co-located people.
    There’s a lot of potential in coordinating co-located people through IT. Think of a multi-story apartment building and all of the env and social benefits that could be gained if the people living there had coordination tools for stuff like laundry, child care, or food.

    An oldie but a goodie. Metaphors help us to understand and adopt new things by relating them to something familiar.

  2. Meaning is the new frontier for me as a designer these two books are a good point of reference:
    Verganti, R 2009, ‘Design-Driven Innovation: Changing the Rules of Competition by Radically Innovating What Things Mean’, Harvard Business School, United States of America.
    Utterback, J & Bengt-Arne, F & Alvaverd, E & Ekman, S & Sanderson, S & Thether, B & Verganti, R 2006, ‘Design-Inspired Innovation’, World Scientific, Singapore.
    There is also the following very interesting article which the above books take a lot of insight from:
    Krippendorff, K 1989, ‘On the Essential Contexts of Artifacts or on the Proposition that Design Is Making Sense of Things’, The MIT Press: Design Issue, vol. 5, no. 2.

  3. A great list. I’d suggest to add »empowering« to existing »inspiring« as solutions should build capacity to let teams/people go on further, as well as »navigational« or »orientational« as today’s complex situations can not be resolved, but solutions should help navigating through them.

  4. Here are three more design principles based on my work in Strategic Change (reference my blog entry on the critical success factors of transformation at

    Urgency: leverage or build urgency to implement a solution; scope, scale, and criticality of the problem; speed required to overcome the problem.

    Value: identified benefits (social, economic, political, and learning benefits); significant positive impact to all stakeholders (communities, individuals, businesses); short-term and long-term.

    Surprise: unique viewpoint on the “real” problem statement; non-apparent solution; creative means to implement in the presence of barriers and resistance.

  5. I second Simon Schories’ suggestion to add “empowering.” Empowering is a step further than inspiring; it’s also the step after participatory, since it means giving people the opportunity to reach their potential and have impact during implementation, not just during the design process.

    Also, I can’t think of a single word/name for this, but education should be somewhere in this list. A solution must be designed so that future leaders, citizens, generations–both next year and in the next century–continue to understand the needs and the solutions we have identified, even as new solutions are designed. This requires that some form of teaching or story-telling is built into the solution, not just taught in schools. In a way, this is part of sustainability, but that means sustainability is about the human resources required to sustain the solution in the future as well as the future impact of the solution.

  6. Another design principle for your consideration…

    My own work is on Systems Thinking as applied to organisation design and learning. In my consulting work Design Thinking often enters in various forms; pure at times but more typically random and disjointed as it reflects the dynamic business reality of my clients.

    I submit for your consideration the principle that Design Thinking should be SYSTEMIC. This may be implied by some of the stated principles, but I suggest that elements such as interconnection, boundary definitions and the role of autopoeisis may be useful for the Design Thinking process.

  7. Thanks for the opportunity to comment, I would suggest adding the following Principles:

    Emergent: The solution will be revealed (emerge) through and as a result of the process of design thinking. It is very important that solutions are discovered, not pre-empted.

    Unique: Every problem (and therefore every solution) is unique and characterised by the process by which it was discovered. This principle would enable innovation and creativity to flourish.

  8. My father used to tell me a story about a protest rally back in the 60’s. The protestors were, what was called then, ‘Free Thinkers’. About an hour after the rally started things got a bit nasty and fur started to fly. The police set off their sirens in one area to the north of the rally, making as much commotion as was possible. All of the ‘Free Thinkers’ did exactly the same thing and ran for an adjacent park, where the trouble dispersed and everyone eventually went home.

    My point, with regard to design principles, is that you have to let your customer feel free, they must feel unique and, above all, they must be free to choose whether they will respect authority or not. Eventually most of us will follow, but it is essential that we feel we lead.


    Colin 🙂

  9. Based on the original post and the subsequent comments, it seems that one very important word is missing from the conversation. That word is “human.” Of course, design (as in design thinking) is a uniquely human means to a uniquely human end–at least in the context of this discussion. I think it is fair to say, then, the goal of most design is to solve human problems in a way that answers human needs, satisfies human wants, fulfills human desires and delivers human value. By adding human to the list, we acknowledge the importance of a user-centered perspective and a person-centered outcome in the design process.

  10. As a high school teacher, how best can I get my students to embrace a ‘new/different’ way of thinking? When I try and students to think about multiple solutions to a problem they often think of one solution, which by the way is the ‘best’ solution and is often there only solution, even when working in a group.
    Can you recommend practice exercises, techniques or research to enable me to better teach my students and get them to think differently about a design problem?

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  14. Love it, I get involved in these kind of design tactics all the time for my clinic. I definitely agree that design should always use these principles and I agree with some of the other posters as well on the additions. We just recently re-did our website at our cosmetic surgery clinic and I loved that the creative team we worked with took the time to go through HOW the design inspired people etc. Was definitely worth it.

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