The Power of the Powers of Ten

April 18, 2013

One of my all time favorite design films is Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames. Apart from being beautiful and technically ingenious, it is a wonderful reminder of one of the most important principles in design—reframing the question. Often the quickest route to new insight is to take a step back and look at the problem from a broader context, or to take a step closer and look at it in more detail. If I am struggling in a project I push myself to explore the system that surrounds the product or service I might be interested in. Or I might dive into one detail of the experience and see where that takes me.

One place I wish designers would do this more often is in the design of mobile apps. In my March 21 post, I commented on the sheer number of apps available today. Many, if not most, of these apps are quite well designed—at the level of the application. But all too often, the designers have not applied the principle of the Powers of Ten. I want apps that make my life simpler—not apps that are just simple to use themselves. I wish designers spent more time thinking about how the app fits into a person’s life as a whole, or how it fits into the ecosystem of apps someone might already be using.

This principle can also be applied in the struggle to decide what to do about your career. If you are considering looking for a new job, or redesigning a role you already have, then think about stepping back or diving in. Step back and think about how you want your job to fit into your life as a whole. Look for the interrelationships that may reduce conflict or increase purpose. Similarly, dive into the experiences you have had at work and seek out the places where you have experienced ‘flow’, that amazing sense of engagement and achievement that many people find to be one of the most rewarding aspects of work. Imagine how a newly designed role might result in more of those moments. Apply the Powers of Ten to your own life.

Can you recall moments when stepping back—or diving in—helped you look at a problem differently?

Powers of Ten image under Creative Commons license via Carolyn Williams.

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)