Toward a Design Genome (?)

Many people will tell you that design is “subjective.” I believe it’s merely very complex, and that it would be possible to create a Design Genome. That is, if a Design Genome should be built.

In Design for Hackers, I described a general framework for the factors that come together to make a design:

  • Intentions: What is the purpose of the artifact? How is it intended to be used? (How many different forms can a spoon or the letter “A” take?)
  • Technology: What technology is used to build the artifact? A plastic chair is different from a metal one.
  • Culture: What are the cultural factors that shape the design? Impressionism was a reaction to Neoclassicism, and was also shaped by the rise of the middle class and the advent of photography.
  • Aesthetics: How can all of the above be reconciled with aesthetic “laws?” Compositional forces — such as alignment — can be used to carry out intentions, the way a call-to-action button may be arranged in the focal area of a design.

As Jason Fried described on my podcast, the Porsche 911 — despite having gone through 7 generations — is recognizable whether it’s the original design, or the current design.


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An original Porsche 911 (circa 1969)
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A relatively new Porsche 911

Throughout the life of the Porsche 911, technology changed, and culture changed.

Notice the more abrupt curves in the older model. Metal-shaping technology improved to make the more subtle curves possible in the newer model.

Look at the low-profile tires, and big, delicately-detailed wheels in the newer model. Was that technologically possible before? The older-model wheels look clunky in comparison.

All along, the philosophy of the design — some might call it the DNA — remained the same. The engine remained in the back, and that also shaped the design.

This DNA could be transferred to other artifacts. For example, look at this pen.

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The subtle curves are like those of the headlight “chambers” on the 911. In fact, if the headlights on the current 911 were points, the curves would be almost exactly like these curves.

It turns out, this pen is a Porsche pen. Porsche has transferred their DNA to numerous products such as pens, purses, wallets, watches, and much more.

This DNA transfer was done by humans, but I believe it’s within the realm of possibility to one day do the same with algorithms.

For a parallel example, see Pandora’s “Music Genome Project.”

Pandora’s Music Genome makes possible a music streaming service. What would be the applications of a Design Genome?

  • A search engine of products categorized by design. You love your couch — what would a lamp with the same DNA look like?
  • Product expansion. If a company is building a new product, how can they transfer the DNA from their existing products?
  • AI design. Plug customer data into an algorithm, along with budgetary considerations, and get a design solution.

The beginnings of a Design Genome would be more modest. For example, an algorithm that generates a “mood board” of colors, shapes, and artifacts, that a designer can then use to create the best solution.

There’s no question in my mind that great — probably imperfect — progress could be made toward a Design Genome. My biggest question is whether a Design Genome would be economically feasible. Pandora still isn’t profitable, so who knows if — with all of the work it would take to build a Design Genome — it’s something that should happen?

On my podcast, Love Your Work, Jason Fried describes how Basecamp has retained the same DNA throughout it’s lifetime (just like the Porsche 911). Listen, or Subscribe on iTunes.

Written by

Bestselling author of “Mind Management, Not Time Management”

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