Shape of Design

date Aug 13, 2014
authors Frank Chimero
reading time 4 mins

Go ahead download and make a quiet afternoon reflection on all things making and design.


much like many of us: we never meet the people we admire from afar. We read their stories. We watch their videos. We inspect their work. We make up the in-between parts. We improvise.

Need for continuous improvisation

I see a platform and it tells me two things: first, other people’s contributions are important. Second, the world is not done. Wow. If I want to believe anything, it’s that. Start improvising.

Marker of good design

What is the marker of good design? It moves. The story of a successful piece of design begins with the movement of its maker while it is being made, and amplifies by its publishing, moving the work out and around. It then continues in the feeling the work stirs in the audience when they see, use, or contribute to the work, and intensifies as the audience passes it on to others. Design gains value as it moves from hand to hand; context to context; need to need.

Compelled to make

Each song is the origin of the individual’s creativity; it is a personal tune that compels us to make things, and feel obligated to do so in a way specific to ourselves.

Asking why create

Our mistake was the same as that of the creative person who places too much focus on How to create her work, while ignoring Why she is creating it. Questions about How to do things improves craft and elevates form, but asking Why unearths a purpose and develops a point of view. We need to do more than hit the right note.

Creative blocks - get the skills and think about the purpose at the same time

Creative people commonly lament about being “blocked,” perpetually stuck and unable to produce work when necessary. Blocks spring from the imbalanced relationship of How and Why: either we have an idea, but lack the skills to execute; or we have skills, but lack a message, idea, or purpose for the work.

To be human is to tinker

The hand axes record the first moment that we understood that the world was malleable – that things can change and move, and we can initiate those transformations ourselves. To be human is to tinker, to envision a better condition, and decide to work toward it by shaping the world around us.

Beauty and functionality

A polished axe does not chop better, just as the refined design of a lamp does not necessarily light a room more fully. Beauty is a special form of craft that goes beyond making something work better.

Make things that are useful and beautiful

The Shakers have a proverb that says, “Do not make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both, do not hesitate to make it beautiful.”

Maker is part of the work

each instrument was a beautiful union, where the maker was himself a material used in the construction. There is no way to describe Stradivari’s work other than as a labor of love. The work has enough love when enthusiasm transfers from the maker to the audience and bonds them. Both are enthusiastic about the design.

Standing on the shoulders of past giants?

Renga required the acceptance of old contributions as the basis for new additions, and this arrangement ensured the poem’s strength and provided a structure that guided the poets during the poem’s creation.


Criticism has a crucial role in the creative process, but its rigor should match the heartiness of the ideas, which become stronger as they develop. The more real an idea becomes, the less suspension of disbelief is required, and the more criticism it should withstand.

Inventions = recombination

Most inventions are recombinations of existing things, but where do the sparks for those combinations come from? What instigates that magic to make hybrids, to use them for unimagined purposes, and to inspire new settings for the three levers?

Thinking from out of the box, at the edge

Our magicians – our Henry Fords, our Billie Holidays, our Gutenbergs, Disneys, and Marie Curies – do not stand on the inside of what is possible and push; they imagine what is just outside of what we deem possible and pull us towards their vision of what is better.

Useful first, then visionary

The fruits of this questioning define and emphasize the cornerstone of successful design: the work first must be useful before it can transcend utility into something visionary.

Successful design

There are two successful outcomes when a design focuses on its audience: resonance and engagement.

Clarity, surprise and empathy

The most important element of delightful design is empathy. Clarity and surprise are only achievable through empathy with the audience.

Any other reflective books on design that you have read?