The Design of Design

An overview of several main ideas from Fred Brooks’ book The Design of Design09 Oct 2012

“I believe ‘a science of design’ to be an impossible and indeed misleading goal.”

That’s what Fred Brooks says early in his book, The Design of Design. Brooks is best known for his massively influential book, The Mythical Man-Month, where he formulated what’s come to be known as Brooks’s law: “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.” The Design of Design is concerned with discovering how great designers work and what factors lead to successful design projects. This post gives an overview of some of the key ideas.

Waterfall doesn’t work

First, Brooks names the enemy: “The waterfall model is wrong and harmful; we must outgrow it.” In a waterfall model of design, the designer would simply move through a series of decision trees, making clear choices that would lead to a final design. He argues that this model is wrong not only because it doesn’t produce good results, but because it simply doesn’t match the way designers work.

Great design relies on intuition

As Brooks says, the “chief service of a designer is helping clients discover what they want designed.” Real world studies “have frequently found ‘intuitive’ features of design ability to be the most effective and relevant to the intrinsic nature of design.”

Brooks believes that “great designs come from great designers. Not from great design processes.” While standardized practices can raise quality at the low end, they will not improve the work of the best design teams.

Trusting the intuition of great designers means excessive requirements “must be fought, by both birth control and infanticide.” Since “the incompleteness and inconsistencies of our ideas become clear only during implementation,” removing strict requirements allows designers to react to the evolving circumstances of the project and take advantage of the possibilities opened up by them. In addition, the design process must continue alongside the implementation to maximize the elegance and usefulness of the final product.

Bold decisions are necessary

But intuition alone is not enough. It must be paired with the willingness to make bold decisions. “The boldest design decisions, whoever made them, have accounted for much of the goodness of the outcome. These bold decisions were due sometimes to vision, sometimes to desperation. They were always gambles, requiring extra investment in hopes of getting a much better result.”

Brooks’s model for great design looks something like this: great designers working closely with the team responsible for implementation over a number of iterations, with free reign to make bold decisions. As promised, it’s not science, but it’s a compelling model that deserves greater use in the real world of design practice.

This post is part of my ongoing work on Open-Source & Peer-to-Peer Software