Design for Indra's Net

My design philosophy is tied to the concept of interconnectedness. I believe that in design, as in life, all things are connected. As a creator of objects and experiences, the designer has a greater responsibility than most to think beyond the obvious ramifications of his or her work - to look beyond simple styling to include every conceivable aspect of a product's design, from cost to manufacturability to its impact on the community and the environment.

Indra's Net is a metaphor for interconnectedness. Indra's Net is an infinitely large web composed of nodes in which each node reflects every other node... infinitely. Consider what happens when a single node is changed: It's image is reflected throughout the system. In an increasingly flat world populated by an ever increasing number of complex products, the same is true; one change at the seminal design stage can reverberate system wide.

"In the heaven of Indra, there is said to be a network of pearls, so arranged that if you look at one you see all the others reflected in it. In the same way each object in the world is not merely itself but involves every other object and in fact is everything else."
- Sir Charles Eliot

The rendering above shows a network of interconnected, reflective nodes — each reflecting each other.

When the color of one node is changed, it's reflections are repeated throughout the system.

To design within such a system is exciting and frequently overwhelming. More often than not, the designer is ill-equipped to anticipate the myriad repercussions of seemingly innocuous design decisions. The results range from the harmless to the catastrophic. But more often than not, they are simply products that never realize their full potential, failing in one aspect of their design - visceral, behavioral or reflective (Norman) - or at a project level by being over budget, missing deadlines or failing to achieve profitability.

When all the constraints and desired outputs of a product can be understood and its design can be performed comprehensively, a level of elegance is possible that is seldom achieved through the typically styling-driven efforts of the average designer. This elegance is the heart of "beauty" in product design. This type of elegance is often achievable for a designer working alone if the project is simple and the level of interconnectivity low — a one-off handmade, wooden chair, for example. As the scale or complexity of the product increases, however, the need for collaboration and systems thinking becomes exponentially more important, as the repercussions of each design decision increase exponentially.

The "architecture" of designing a product to perform in only one or a few aspects (e.g. aesthetics, ergonomics, et al.) is relatively primitive and requires a mountain of externalities. When all the elements of a design are balanced holistically and the design is created with an eye to interconnectedness, its architecture is more elegant and requires fewer unplanned externalities.

What is Beauty?

In product design, the standard definition of beauty is concerned only with the visceral effect that an object has on its observer. This a simple, one dimensional interpretation of beauty yields products that are a shadow of what they could be if considered comprehensively. For example, many automobiles are dubbed "beautiful" even as they pollute the environment, encourage obesity, erode the urban landscape, divide and isolate communities and generate cookie cutter urban sprawl. By a comprehensive definition of beauty, even the most viscerally attractive automobile is ugly in the repercussions it creates.

In a design philosophy built on interconnectedness, the beautiful object is comprehensively beautiful; it looks good, works well, and improves the user and his/her community or environment. What's more, the connections of the object itself — both external and internal connections — are also beautiful. External connections are those repercussions an object has on its user, community and beyond. Examples include that of a locally-made, handcrafted bicycle, which fosters better health and community, supports a local craftsman, requires little maintenance or cost for the user and does not pollute the environment. Internal connections describe the relationships between aspects of the object itself — its form, function, materials, manufacture, et al. A primitive wooden bow is an example of a device with beautiful internal and external connectivity. Among other aspects, its form is precisely reflective of its function; its design exploits the naturally long fibers of its material; it empowers its user to feed himself at a rate that is sustainable (and no more); and its material is a natural product of the forest in which it is used. 

Designing Deliberately

Within a complex web of constraints, there is only one way to achieve the elegance of a comprehensively beautiful design. It requires a comprehensive understanding of the problem and a breadth of knowledge from which to draw solutions. The more completely a designer understands the various constraints and possibilities that describe the solution set, the more likely it is that he can synthesize an elegant balance of those constraints.

Most products today are too complex for a single designer to tackle comprehensively. It's rarely possible for a lone designer to understand all the interconnected aspects or a modern consumer product — and design-by-committee has its own well known web of problems. Most products that exhibit the kind of elegance I describe above are achievable through only one process — evolution — a process that combines the laser-like vision of a single innovator with the comprehensive experience of a multitude of collaborators. Unfortunately for individuals who want to see their work bear fruit during their lifetime, this method happens across the span of centuries. The challenge for designers today is to both increase their knowledge individually and to leverage the collaborative opportunities afforded by technology to increase the rate of evolutionary design. Through this process, designers will be able to create unimaginably complex devices that reflect the elegance and interconnectivity of evolutionary design but at speeds that are revolutionary.