What designers can learn from Evolution

2009-09-10

Designing means to plan and create something on purpose to solve a specific problem. Evolution has no purpose, it doesn’t plan, but in the end it breeds all different kind of organisms, which are able to solve certain problems. Even though design has a cause and evolution doesn’t, in the end they are both the reason for the solution of a problem, thus they achieve the same thing. Therefore a closer look at evolution can teach you a lot about what design is, how it works, what it can achieve and what not.

Basic principle

A diagram showing a basic principle of evolution

Evolution

Evolution is based upon two basic principles: Heredity and Variation. Hereditable traits are characteristics of an organism that are passed from one generation to the next. They are controlled by the genes on the DNA. Variations in these traits can occur through mutation of a gene and by recombining them (by sexual reproduction). Because some traits are controlled by multiple genes, recombination can lead to new and advantageous combinations.

Design

Ideas are the genes of design. Every design is based upon ideas or concepts that have been there before. Inspiration is the search for these ideas to combine, it’s the heredity of design. Finding a new combinations of ideas is called invention. Finding the ideas itself is called discovery. Even the invention of the wheel wasn’t neither the invention of round things, nor of rolling things. It was just the discovery of the concept that something round can roll and inventing a way to utilize this to fulfill a purpose.

Quality control

A diagram showing a basic principle of evolution

Evolution

Evolution won’t breed something that sucks. If something is really bad and doesn’t work it takes evolution about one generation to get rid of it. Even if an animal would think, that it would be really cool to have no mouth at all, it wouldn’t stand a chance, since it would be completely unviable. Thereby it wouldn’t be able to produce offsprings that can pass on the crackpot ability of having no mouth. This is called natural selection. It doesn’t matter what a good idea something might sound like, the only thing that matters is, if it’s an advantage or not. If it‘s a disadvantage nature will get rid of it. Nature never tries to fool itself.
This trail and error may seems a bit inefficient, but it’s as bulletproof as it can get, when it comes to check if a system works as a whole.

Design

What natural selection is to evolution, supply and demand is to design. If nobody wants it, it won’t last. Most ideas are dropped right after they came up, because they are obviously bullshit. In nature this would be called stillbirth. On the other way around, if something turns out to be pretty good it can win recognition, will be reproduced and influence other designers, thereby become a trend.

The advantage of design is, that ideas are seldom lost forever. You don’t need a direct line of heritage for a design, since every idea in the world can be combined with each other, as long as somebody remembers it. Also designers seem to have an advantage over evolution, since they can consciously work toward a certain problem. On the other hand this bears the risk of forgetting to concern about something. You can only look at a few properties at a time, while it’s hard to check a product as a whole. Nevertheless it should somehow be done.

Benefit of disadvantages

A diagram showing a basic principle of evolution

Evolution

Some animals show traits, that seem to be disadvantageous in the first place. The huge tail of the peacock makes him easily recognizable to predators and handicaps him in his ability to fly. The reason for developing this apparent disadvantage is sexual selection. The peahen just loves her peacocks with a hugh, flashy tail. Her selection benefits a trait of their species, that actual should be obviously supposed to die out. This shows that evolution doesn’t support the individual with the best chances to survive, but the ones with the best chances to reproduce. Just being able to totally not get killed isn’t enough if you got no offsprings to pass on this ability.

Design

In design something really similar occurs. Several objects just simply suck. Nevertheless everybody seems to want them. The reason why these pieces of crap sell anyway is advertising and looking like a good deal. This can make people want a product no matter what a huge pile of shit it is. Designers like to complain about this situation, however it can’t be changed. The ability of a product to appeal and to sell is as much part of its quality as everything else. Just being awesome isn’t enough if nobody wants you.

Usability

A diagram showing a basic principle of evolution

Evolution

Eyes are a fine invention. You can see the world around you with them. Now let’s assume nature wouldn’t pay attention and put those eyes on the back of an animals head. It always would have to turn around to see something and won’t see where it’s walking. Sounds pretty implausible, doesn’t it? No matter how awesome something is: if you can’t use it, it’s vain. Nature never ignores this. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and evolution will make sure, nothing is wasted just because some part of the product is a little less elaborated.

Design

Usability shouldn’t be misunderstood as something like a nice feature. “Oh we could add some usability here, maybe people will enjoy this.” It’s the key concept of design. No matter how good something is, if you can’t use it, there’s no use in it. If it’s only barely usable, than it’s also only barely good. One good idea alone will get you nowhere. It’s the whole package that counts. This idea is really not that hard to understand, however some designers think they can ignore it, as if nobody would notice when it’s a pain in the ass to use something.

Economics

A diagram showing a basic principle of evolution

Evolution

Ever wondered why there’s no super-strong animal that can crush an elephant with its jaws? You should note, that the ability to crush an elephant with your jaws requires quite an amount of energy. Carrying around such an enormous jaw also requires energy. So you just don’t have to crush the elephant, foremost you have to find him. Again evolution takes great care, that its spawns work as economically as possible, since being ineffective is no good trait. Enormous jaws are of little use when you’re dying of starvation because you’re out of elephants.

Design

It’s no secret, how important it’s to have a look at the costs of something. If it’s too expensive, nobody will be able to afford it, if it’s too cheap the quality will suffer. What’s most likely to be forgotten is, that there are other resources, that aren’t unlimited and should also be considered. Time, attention or nerves are just a few of them. Keep it simple stupid.

Convergence

A diagram showing a basic principle of evolution

Evolution

Creatures that live in water are quit uncreative. Nearly everybody there looks the same. Fish, dolphins, whales, as well as ichthyosaur came up with basically the same streamlined body and paddle-like flippers or fins. They aren’t copycats, it just turns out that this is a pretty good way to move through water. Nature doesn’t try to be creative just for the sake of it. Under similar circumstances organisms will most likely develop analogous solutions for a problem. This is called convergent evolution.

On the other hand, species in the same eco system can develop varying traits. By this divergent evolution they can specialize to fill in different ecological niches.

Design

Sometimes different people come up with the same idea. This is often blamed as stealing, even if it was by accident and happened completely independently from each other. While it can be comprehended that it’s not nice to steal a whole product to compete with the initial inventor, there’s little sense in not doing something that has proven of value, just because it’s been done before. On the other hand the best solutions are often specially crafted for a certain problem or are solving problems no one else has thought about before.

Flexibility

A diagram showing a basic principle of evolution

Evolution

Nothing can last forever. No matter how good creatures have adapted to their environment, sooner or later things will change and everything will be put on trail. Either the solutions are flexible enough to work under these altered circumstances, or evolution must work quickest possible to adapt to the new conditions. No matter how good something works in a given environment, when rapid change is happening, it will be endangered to struck out if it can’t handle it.

Design

Designers have a great advantage over evolution: sometimes they might be able to predict a change before it’s happening, enabling their product to handle a new situation before it’s occurred. However this is not always possible. To create something that’s persistent, you must find solutions that are flexible. The more you specialized something is, the greater the chances are that it will fails even after the slightest shift. It’s the job of the designer to balance specialization and flexibility against each other.

Perfection

A diagram showing a basic principle of evolution

Evolution

There’s no such thing as perfection. Evolution has no goal and doesn’t try to evolve towards something. Evolution doesn’t even try to reach a higher complexity, it sometimes even decreases complexity. Even if men like to think so, there’s nothing like the perfect organism. There are only better or worser solutions to certain problems, but no ultimate answer to everything or even a best answer to something. There’s no universal good or bad, it only depends on the situation or the criteria you use to make a comparison.

Design

Throughout history a lot of people thought they have found the perfect solution for a certain problem. But many tend to forget, that this doesn’t mean, that this solution is of any quality for any other situation. No matter how good a solution might be, there will come a time when it’s rendered completely useless. There will never be an ultimate solution, that solves every problem forever.

What is it, that you can learn from evolution?

No matter how good one aspect of an idea might be, when you become dazzled by its awesomeness and thereby oversee something else it can be totally wasted. You always must perceive something as a whole. The quality of something can’t be judged by a single part. Also keep in mind that quality doesn’t depend on how good you think it is, but on how good it turns out to be. Unlike nature you can’t always check everything again and again, so it’s important to stay honest to yourself and always keep critical. Fooling yourself will get you nowhere. Knowing your bounds is important if you want to push them.


A little bit about me

My name ist Marcus Blättermann.
I’m majoring in communication design and work as a freelancer for illustration, print- & webdesign. If you like my work you can .

What you should do next

Don’t forget to subscribe to my RSS-Feed and follow me on Twitter. You should also check out my Portfolio.

If you didn’t like this oneYou will hate these