There comes a moment, after all the reading, listening, questioning, analysing, presenting and writing, when you’ve finally got to come up with an idea. You can’t defer it indefinitely.
Whether you’re a lawyer devising an argument, a systems analyst designing software, an architect designing a house, an engineer constructing a bridge, a general planning an attack, or a marketing consultant devising a campaign, there’s only so long you can ignore that look in the client’s eye that says, ‘So….what should we do?’
Imagination is involved at all stages of the consulting process, but so far it’s played a relatively minor role. There’s imagination involved in ferreting out the facts, for example, but it’s needed most of all at the point where you must devise a solution, though it’s also tempered by experience and wisdom. Sadly, solutions can’t simply be logically derived from the facts in front of you. If you’ve structured your findings well, you’ve probably already worked your way towards the answer. But you need inspiration to get you there.
However, inspiration, like the poet’s Muse, isn’t always at your beck and call. Each of us has a different way of invoking it. Some get drunk, some sleep on it, sometimes even dreaming a solution (just as Wagner dreamt the opening bars of Das Rheingold whilst dozing before the fire), some play rugby or squash, some play chamber music. Sherlock Holmes played the violin and injected himself with something special. We all have our own way, legal or otherwise. I like to put things aside for a while and let the facts tumble about in my mental washing-machine until, at an unexpected moment, they seem to sort themselves out into an idea. But however they come, they don’t come through a logical progression of the facts.
Scientific theory is the same. The experimental evidence is laid out before the scientist, who has to sweep it all up into one grand theory that accommodates it all. Or more than one theory. Half the problem with solutions and theories is deciding which one is the right one.
A solution must solve the problem, a scientific theory must fit the facts (and predict a few more facts so that it can move forward through failure). But often there are many theories that fit the facts, and many solutions that solve the problem. Does the earth rotate around the sun, or the sun around the earth? Rival theories can be made to fit the facts, almost indefinitely, but the strain begins to show when one theory becomes more complex as the other one remains simple. We reject complexity where simplicity will do. (Conspiracy theorists habitually break this rule.)
And that’s where other principles play a part. Completeness may be the first principle of good design (your solution or theory must explain (or rationally discard) your findings) but the second principle of good design is simplicity.
Simplicity may seem like an obvious principle that doesn’t need writing down, but it’s first expression is credited to William of Ockham (1238-1348). His ‘law of parsimony’, often known as Occam’s Razor, cuts out the unnecessary entities in a theory. He framed his lex parsimoniae in Latin – entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitate which is roughly translated as ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’. There’s an alternative version Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate which is translated as ‘plurality should not be posited without necessity’. Both can be paraphrased as ‘All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best.’
Ockham was an English Franciscan friar and he lived before the scientific age, but his principle of simplicity applies to theory even if there aren’t any ‘facts’. He applied his law to the make-believe world of medieval theology. Try counting entities you can’t actually see. But what the law doesn’t tell you is exactly how to recognise simplicity. It isn’t always obvious. Must you count the ‘entities’ or is your judgement aesthetic? I suspect it’s a bit of both.
How would you design a device for removing the peel from potatoes (otherwise known as a potato peeler!)?
Or like this?
William Heath Robinson was famous for designing unnecessarily complicated machines. There’s a simple and serious point to his drawings. Though there’s a certain joy in ingenuity and complexity, it’s best never to make things more complicated than they need to be.
So, what is good design?
Good design is:
But it’s also:
We will look at these additional principles in a later post.