Technology, needs, and analogy in design

T-shirt reading "life is like an analogy"

Analogies can be very useful.

I’ve been thinking about Don Norman‘s notion of technology driving needs ever since I read and wrote about it some months ago. I’m still trying to understand the implications of it, and how it fits into my own views. One thing I’ve realized is that a design is constrained by the designer’s ability to recognize analogies between needs and existent technology, and that, as an educator, I have to urge my students to remain current about available technologies and to understand them as deeply as possible, because knowledge of those technologies and their impact on people will inform their designerly acts as much as their knowledge of process and method.

Design is enabled by knowing about technology – about everything else that came before now. And not only about technology alone, but also about the impact that a technology has had on people in its past incarnations.

Consider the Palm Pilot. Though it was a highly innovative product, it used a stylus and touch sensitive screen that was a known technology at the time. That is, the designers stood in the role of users of another technology (the stylus/screen technology), which they didn’t invent but did have to know existed.

How could they have decided to use the stylus/screen technology if they didn’t already know about it?  If designers had to invent every technology they needed in every design, nothing would ever get done.

When Henry Ford first popularized the automobile, he could not have predicted the impact that it would have had on the environment, on the development of urban, suburban, and rural spaces, on the nature of employment, and on the human psyche.  The automobile was made possible thanks to the internal combustion engine, which Ford did not invent, yet which is directly responsible for many of the characteristics of automobiles that enabled them to affect society so deeply.

So a design is in many ways a product of the available technology. In the same way as DNA “uses” us to create more of itself (as Richard Dawkins explains very clearly in The Blind Watchmaker), one can think of technology using us to create new technologies. (Okay; maybe that’s too weird, but it is interesting to consider the possibilities that arise.)

This can strongly bias the direction of a design, even if its designer is completely unbiased.  That is, a design is constrained by what the designer knows (among other things); in particular, it is constrained by the physical principles and technologies of which the designer is aware, and the impact of those principles and technologies on people. But since designers can’t know what they don’t know, their lack of knowledge is an unintentional bias.

It doesn’t sound very controversial when one says it like this, does it? And yet, so many industries generate artifacts while remaining blissfully ignorant of the natural limitations under which they act.

Whether a principle exists (yet) isn’t as critical as whether the designer knows about it; if the designer doesn’t know about it, the principle’s existence is irrelevant.

Could the Palm Pilot have been designed without the designers having known about touch screens and styluses? Could the Model T have been designed without the internal combustion engine? Maybe. But they would have certainly been a very different products. Whether they would have been better or worse is entirely unknown, but it is clear that the fewer technology options (principles) one is aware of, the less likely one is to design anything that is “good” by anyone’s reckoning.

So to be a good designer, one must be aware of many different principles and technologies. It’s like wanting to build something out of Lego, but not knowing what kinds of bricks you’ve got.

Sometimes, the technology or principle exists, but it has to be tweaked to suit the designer’s needs. We often call that kind of tweaking “innovation” or an act of creativity, but I’m not so sure that’s the best description for it.

I think it’s mostly a matter of reasoning by analogy. A designer sees something – a shape, a device, a person doing something in a particular way – it stimulates a connection to some other matter of concern to the designer, and suddenly an idea exists. I don’t think the idea actually comes from nothing; I think it comes from the connection formed in and by the designer’s mind between the observed thing and the other thing about which the designer is thinking. I think everyone can do this, but some people are better at it than others, and those are the people that we call “creative”. There is some significant research, such as that of Keith Sawyer, that explains how the brain actually works in prelude to ideas forming in our conscious minds, cognition of which we aren’t aware so the results appear to come from nothing. Indeed, based on work like Sawyer’s, I don’t really believe in creativity any more; instead, I believe in the human mind’s ability to make connections.

It’s hard to argue this point because the connection between an experience and a current concern can form unconsciously; so many people disagree with this proposal because they do not experience the moments of connection. Nonetheless, it seems that the connections do in fact occur, regardless of our being conscious of them.

The key here is that the connection forms between a problem that one is trying to solve and some other thing, observed or already known, that share some significant features with the problem.  That’s an analogy.  If one’s experience and knowledge of those “other things” is limited, then one will be much less likely to form those analogies that we interpret as creative acts. Once again, it pays to know about things; it’s all knowledge that can drive design creativity and innovation.

This suggests that analogical reasoning could play a greater role in designing than most people think. Analogical reasoning involves solving a problem by finding some other problem that is similar to the one, and that has a known solution. You can then use the differences between the two problems to devise an adaptation strategy to apply the known solution to the new problem.

A principle or technology is a solution to a class of problems, so knowing about technologies helps seed the mind with the raw materials needed to drive analogical reasoning.

They say that if you only have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. That’s why so many designers keep using the same design features over and over again – it’s all that they know. Learning about different principles and technologies can help prevent this kind of stagnation.

This also rather makes the case for the designer as generalist, a notion I’ve advocated in the past, but not very well. I hope the argument I’m sketching out here can lend some weight to the idea: if analogy is a fundamental mechanism of design creativity, and if analogical reasoning depends on the breadth of one’s experience, then it follows that a good designer will be a generalist in many different areas rather than (or perhaps in addition to) being a specialist in only one area.

This is also important in design education. Since we can’t teach students about all the available technologies – there’s just too many of them – we have to teach them about principles that are abstractions of classes of technologies. But more than that, we have to teach them to want to learn about specific technologies on their own, learn about them well enough to know how they can be applied in various situations, and what the consequences of their use are. Students must leave school knowing that they have to keep up with new technologies because ignorance of them will weaken their design output.

This also means that educators must instill two skill sets in their students: the drive to continue to learn after graduation, and the ability to learn on their own effectively and efficiently.

How exactly we can do this well is an open question. It depends in large part on the individual student and how that student learns. This variable cannot be controlled for, so far, so it’s up to the instructors to adapt. This isn’t easy either, because instructors naturally think only in certain ways; that thinking comes out in their teaching, and may be incompatible with the thinking styles of their students.

Given the constraints placed on me by my institution and by government regulation, I’ve found the most effective way to do this in my case is by example.

I mean this in two ways.

Firstly, I try to be inquisitive and enthusiastic for learning. I encourage students to challenge me, to pose hard questions that force me to look at my own knowledge in different ways, and I let them watch me think things through, so they know that it’s authentic. And then I cross my fingers and hope that my enthusiasm rubs off on them.

Secondly, I use examples of how practicing designers learnt and how that learning led to success – as well as examples of how lack of learning can lead to design failures.

single cup hand-held espresso machine

A single cup, hand-held espresso machine. (From

Here’s an example I used very recently in class. I showed my class an image of a single cup, hand-held espresso machine like the one to the left here. Those students who knew about espresso immediately looked puzzled. I knew what they were thinking: where does the pressurized water come from?

I let them mull that over for a bit, then said: “think of a small capsule full of compressed air.” (Admittedly, I had already read about this product’s operation.) The students understood immediately. The point is that without knowing about the technology of high-pressure air cartridges, it becomes impossible to develop the design.

I wish I had other tricks up my sleeve for this, but I don’t.

If you know of any techniques to encourage and develop these skill sets, share them by leaving a comment.


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