The need for Comprehensive Design

A manifesto for the Comprehensive Designer

Jay Acutt
38 min readMar 27, 2023

Whether designed intentionally or inadvertently, pretty much everything about human life has been designed (as observed by Herbert Simon, Victor Papanek, Buckminster Fuller, and most recently, Don Norman 2023).

Even so, the vast majority of ‘design’ hasn’t been done by a Designer. Each time someone had to make a choice, about the height, weight, size, position, place, state, mode, colour, shape, literally any conscious change of anything, they were doing design.

But when that choice was made ‘just because’ the choice had to be made, and not for the right purpose for the right outcome, then this is when bad design happens. Most can agree: the world is filled with bad design.

What’s the difference between what a Designer does and what a ‘just because’ designer/decider does? Design as a profession requires intention: the Designer must understand the who, the purpose, the use, the intention, the context, the outcome of the thing being chosen. What are the implications? What are the unknown implications? How will it make a difference – These are the key concerns of a professional designer, and this simple fact separates intentional decisions from the majority of those who make decisions ‘just because’.

Since Designers make change with intention, you’d think that Designers would be central to any and all decision, everywhere, all of the time. But this is sadly, often not the case.

The role of Design changed since it’s original meaning. As Nicholas de Monchaux (professor and head of architecture at MIT) recently wrote, this narrowing happened over time in Architecture. But regardless of whether it was a landmark event, or a slow degradation — at some point Designers may have forgotten that the point of any effort/work isn’t to make things: it’s to make a difference. To make change, with intention.

In modern Digital Design, we may ask at what point did being great at tools like Figma become the most useful function of a modern Designer? When did the how become more important than the why?

These days, I wonder whether Design itself needs a redesign?

Problems for Designers.

Problems run through the profession like the marbleising in marble stone. Take a look at the these challenges, top to bottom.

Leadership-level: Design leadership, has often claimed that it’s important to get a ‘seat at the table, advocating that designers should have a greater influence on product or changes in a given organisation. In some places, the skillset now has a seat at the table, but the question remains what to do with it.

Senior IC-level: At the mid-to-senior levels, every designer I’ve ever managed, coached, mentored etc has always expressed their overarching goal as: ‘To be the best designer I can possibly be’. An incredibly noble and laudible cause, and one which I’m fully invested to support.

Before you can achieve this potential, you have to have a strong enough picture of the end-goal in order to dream it in the first-place. Like professional sports-stars practice visualisation in order to remove any subconscious inhibitions. So to support those designers in the best way, it’s required to provide/share/point to a tangible model of what that should look like.

But what to point to? Design leaders I’ve also spoken with have struggled with this universal question.

There’s plenty of sources out there to provide some guidance. These days, private companies provide guidance/structure around levelling designers, yet these aren’t exactly universal. And that’s the main problem with them: these standards aren’t universal. Which company’s role-guidelines should you follow? Is a great designer at one company the same as a great designer at another? There’s also a moral/ethical angle: it seems inappropriate for companies to decide the structure of a career in Design.

Moreover, the scope of the designer has broadened. The context has changed. The social responsibility has increased. As Steve Jobs once stated, there’s a huge amount of craftsmanship between a great idea and a great product (The Lost Interview, around 35mins). It’s designers who make these micro-trade-offs and selections. They are often the one’s providing the craftsmanship that fills that idea-product gap. And a report by McKinsey (2022, Exhibit 4) demonstrated how Designers provide greater value when they also design the business itself, not just the product.

And there’s also a moral and social responsibility, a big responsibility, for anyone providing guidence on what ‘being the best designer’ should look like. When Designers are able to shape the environment and change the way people behaviour, this super-power can have massive implications. As Mike Monteiro wrote in his FastCompany article, designers perhaps should be licenced to be able to make such important decisions. Citing Papanek, Monteiro reminded us that designers might be considered ‘as gatekeepers’ to the product for that reason. Designers routinely make decisions that, at scale, can impact elections, change public opinion, cause product addiction — effectively changing human habits at scale, akin to a big human murmeration.

Entry-IC level: At the entry-level of the field, the industrialisation of training in the form of modern bootcamps can also leave a gap. They solve a different problem — the labour shortage in our industry — but they don’t arguably provide a framework for genuine greatness. They’re intentionally designed to be fast-paths to effectiveness, and once effective, then you could become great. But who are they designed to emulate? Which model(s) of absolute effectiveness have been copied?

So if private companies are inconsistant, current courses don’t always cover the range needed to be effective, and bootcamps solve a different problem, then what can we do?

We must benchmark our skills based not upon the local maximum (best in your team, or best in the current business), but the absolute maximum (best that’s ever existed). But this requires some investigation…

Narrowed, distracted influence.

Because of the nature of commercial design, modern designers tackle small lucrative pieces of a puzzle. They abstract a behaviour or a ‘job-to-be-done’ from the entire, and very complex, human. They build products to solve that one need, and ignore the complex ecosystem of all the others.

We might ask, like the Engineering and Industrial Design professor Robert H. McKim who lectured in 1959, “Who designs for the whole man?”, or to modernise the phrase “who designs for the whole human?”. Almost 70 years have passed, and yet the question (as far as I can tell) still stands. Who does? Do you?

Since we like to isolate and separate aspects of the world around us in order to study it, we are also likely to over-simplify, taking a small piece of a very large eco-system, make a design intervention, then expect the eco-system to change. In fact, it does change, but not in the ways anticipated (as captured in Monteiro’s extended exposé, Ruined by Design). There’s a problem inherent in the ‘problem’ concept, but that’s another discussion for another day.

The majority of issues occur because Designer’s tend to focus on a specific problem related to a sub-set of complexity. Perhaps a particular customer-type, or a specific product. Because of having to find employment, they embody what Michael Ben-Eli (The Sustainability Laboratory, New York, 2007) referred to as the ‘narrow, or professional’ definition.

This definition tends to limit the true scope of a designer, to the extent that their true influence is filtered, and constrained. Designers have the power to deconstruct physical reality, whilst reconstructing it in more desirable patterns. But they imagine and predict the possible versions that do not exist, can positively structure something in order to ‘test’ an idea. They explore alternatives, produce derivatives, and critique each using it’s purpose as a benchmark. They entertain ideas without having to fully accept them.

Despite this super-power, the majority of Designers are pushed into Ben-Eli’s ‘narrow, or professional’ definition out of practicality. We all have to make a living, afterall. But what is lost from this distraction is much bigger. What’s lost is the social and moral role, providing impact for humanity. The industrial designer Jay Baldwin stated it best when he observed this tragedy:

“Unfortunately, most designers are not comprehensive, anticipatory only of profits (client’s [ed: or employeer’s] profits), and rarely scientific.” Jay Baldwin, Writer, Editor Technical Consultant

Baldwin was referring to the contrast between the common designer, and a definition of a Designer as ‘Comprehensive’, ‘Anticipatory’ and a ‘Scientist’. Such a definition was first stated by Richard Buckminster Fuller (RBF), the polymathic genius who Steve Jobs turned into an icon (and argued by some to have been a modern-day Da vinci). When Jobs stated ‘those who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are often the ones who do’, he was referring to Fuller…

And in this article, I’d like to inspire you to ‘Be like Bucky’, to elevate your impact, widen your scope, and become a Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Scientist (CADS), or Comprehensive Designer for short.

The need to take design seriously.

As we saw above, the scope of influence of the Designer has narrowed. But counter-cultural attempts have been made to reverse this.

In our present time, and hot-off-the-press (I’m writing before these works have been published), experts have acknowledged the need for a broader role of the designer. Manuel Lima, for example, has proposed the need to redefine the role of the Designer, in his work The New Designer (2023). Donald Norman (2023) recently wrote how “We need a new form of design, one that understands and can work with the extremely large variety of issues, people, politicians, and business people across the world.

But it might surprise you to learn that this view isn’t all that new.

As Mark Twain observed, history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes, and this tune has been played before. Experts like Buckminster Fuller and Robert H. McKim (named above) created a tradition dating back to the 1950s of integrating a number of fields, such as engineering, science and design together. Their impetus for such thinking was in response to many people at the time “…becoming concerned over the ever enlarging demand for new and better solutions to both new and old problems” (Arnold, p60). As I referenced in a previous article, there was, and still is, a strong need for a Cybernetics of design (20 Nov 2022), because the problems designers are expected to face are often much bigger and complex than their training has prepared them for.

The work of these luminaries was in some ways influential at the time, but the terms they coined to represent their integrated approach receded largely into the background.

An imagined Braun smartphone. What a smartphone would have looked like if it was designed in the 1960s by Dieter Rams.
An original 1967 smartphone prototype designed by Dieter Rams. Warning: This is a completely invented product — thanks to my prompt on Midjourney, and my own minimal Photoshop tidy-up.

Perhaps a recent and very relevant reference to it came from an interview with Dieter Rams in reference to the success of Apple as a Design-focussed company. It’s hard to find a Designer more influential on the modern world, than Rams, largely because of his influence on Jony Ive and Apple. Even so, Rams confessed that:

“I am troubled by the devaluing of the word ‘design’. I find myself now being somewhat embarrassed to be called a designer. In fact I prefer the German term, Gestalt-Ingenieur [Creative Engineer]. Apple and Vitsoe are relatively lone voices treating the discipline of design seriously in all corners of their businesses. They understand that design is not simply an adjective to place in front of a product’s name to somehow artificially enhance its value. Ever fewer people appear to understand that design is a serious profession; and for our future welfare we need more companies to take that profession seriously.” (Dieter Rams — in this article)

Rams’ words resonate more strongly today than ever, given the evidence of the impact of having a Design-led company. Some startups founded by Designers have become house-hold names, and almost always outperform those that are not. And especially because, thinking more broadly than business – The survival of the climate, the planet, life itself, and the human species is what’s at stake.

But if Design is this important, why should Rams be so critical of being called a ‘Designer’?

Rams was responding to the sense that a designer’s role is only in aesthetics. For Rams, good design went well beyond this value:

A designer who wants to achieve good design must not regard himself as an artist who, according to taste and aesthetics, is merely dressing-up products with a last-minute garment.

The designer must be the gestaltingenieur or creative engineer. They synthesize the completed product from the various elements that make up its design. Their work is largely rational, meaning that aesthetic decisions are justified by an understanding of the product’s purpose. (Dieter Rams, December 1976, Speech at Vitsoe, New York)

In both the quotes from Rams above, we can see this recurrent theme of the ‘Creative Engineer’. It was part of his mental model of what defined a great designer.

In order to understand this term ‘Creative Engineer’, we have to venture back to the 1950s, when Arnold, Fuller, and a number of other scholars proposed the need for a convergence of various skills. Their intention was to prepare professionals to be able to solve the challenges they were facing then, and anticipated to face in the future.

Their plan was also to model a skillset that was not just useful, but capable of elevating an entirely new breed of Designer.

Paragons of Greatness.

If you become the mean of the 5 people you spend the most time with, and the internet has made it easier than ever to be exposed to the thinking of any human on the planet who’s ever lived, then who should we spend our time with?

The first task is to determine ‘greatness’, or at least find a Northstar worth pointing the compass towards. Are there personifications that embody or imbue traits of greatness?

For Buckminster Fuller, Leonardo da Vinci represented “the outstanding example of the comprehensively anticipatory design scientist” (pp. 6). Fuller also referred to da Vinci as a “comprehensive design scientist-artist inventor” (1969, 7). Fuller believed that da Vinci represented the intensive curiosity necessary to become a fantastic Designer.

In his description, Fuller provided us with some of the keywords needed to recognise such genius — ‘comprehensive’, ‘anticipatory’ and ‘design scientist’. Fuller further asserted, “Many persons wonder why we do not have such men today. It is a mistake to think we cannot.”

This was the indirect goal of establishing a new field. It brought together experts from an array of fields to invent a framework necessary to create a great ‘comprehensively anticipatory design scientist’. Rams, Arnold, Papanek, Fuller, Norman, Clancey to name only a few are some of those folks whose work on this topic we shall investigate.

The notion of a ‘Creative Engineer’

In the 1950s, the need for the fields of Engineering and Design to converge was beginning to surface in professional and academic literature. Fuller observed there was “the emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist.” (Buckminster Fuller 1949, pp. 176). More specifically, between 1959–1960, there was a conscious effort to bring more alignment to these fields.

The Stanford University professor John E. Arnold (1913–1963), the Industrial Designer Henry Dreyfuss, Robert McKim (in his seminar “Designing for the Whole Man”) were all beginning to discuss the idea of Buckminster Fuller’s “Comprehensive Designer”, but using an adjacent term “Creative Engineer”.

As someone with degrees in both Industrial Design and Engineering, McKim felt that an Engineer should be more like a Designer. This view complimented the view of others from the Design field (such as Rams) who proposed that Designers should be more like Engineers. Regardless of origin, this proposed convergence was largely an indicator of where the proposal was coming from, rather than the modus of the convergence itself. Despite this, it was clear that eminent experts on both sides of the competency-divide were suggesting a skillset that comprised the best elements of both.

Arnold, through his own set of seminars on Creative Engineering, proposed that ‘designer–engineers’ who have multiple perspectives and skills, should be the future of both fields. He also used the concept of the most logical convergence being the establishment of the ‘Human Engineer’, or ‘mature scientist–engineer’.

The ideal situation would be to have in addition to a few specialists in the various fields, a greater number of men who have fundamental training in and knowledge of a number of related fields. This person is the “Comprehensive Designer” (Arnold, “What is Creativity?” p. 66).

Arnold continued:

“One of the aims of Creative Engineering is to bring about a union between the physical sciences, social sciences, and the arts. In this way and perhaps only in this way can we be assured that our innovations better satisfy some need of man.” (Arnold, “What is Creativity?” p. 66).

Becoming a Creative Engineer, or Comprehensive Designer

If we agree that the modern world needs a new breed of Designer; One that elevates your impact, widens your scope, takes a social, environmental and conscious role in the design of humanity, then what must we do?

Perhaps the first thing we must do it change our perspective. Bcause Perspective matters.

As a Designer, Fuller opted out of the standard model of existing ‘within’ a corporation, that narrow and professional definition, and shifted his perspective to recognise the problems facing the species and the planet. Fuller explained:

“It was not that the problems could not be seen by others, but society was preoccupied with individual, national, state, and local business-survival problems, which forced its leaders into short-term, limited-scope considerations — with no time for total world problems. The presidents of great corporations had to make good profits within a very few years or lose their jobs. The politicians, too, were preoccupied with short-range national, state, or municipal survival matters.”

Fuller is referring to what Simon Sinek might refer to as a Finite Mindset, and constrasted his view with the concept of commiting to a Just Cause.

“Finite-focused leaders are often loath to sacrifice near-term gains, even if it’s the right thing to do for the future, because near-term gains are the ones that are most visible to the market. The pressure this mindset exerts on others in the company to focus on the near-term often comes at the detriment of the quality of the services or the products we buy. (Simon Sinek, The Infinite Game, Ch.5).

Whether operating within a finite or infinite context, as we’ve already surmised, Designers have a quite peculiar skillset — they can imagine things that have never existed, and they can make them exist. A Designer’s super-power is manifestation. A business-person or product manager might be able to imagine it, but they might also struggle to manifest that idea. Similarly, a software engineer might be capable of building anything imaginable, but they might need a designer to do the imagining. Secondly, Creativity is a designer’s super-power.

Compelled by the echo of Aurelius’ thoughts that ‘if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.’ (by rote of also being human, Meditations, 6.19), and Einstein’s phrase ‘I’m no more intelligent than others, I just stay with problems longer’, being ‘passionately curious’ and da Vinci’s ‘all men are born equal, but with practice, the difference increases’ then how might we become more impactful in our practice?

How was it possible for any one person to understand all the topics on the planet? One approach, that was practiced by Fuller, was known as ‘Total Thinking’.

Total Thinking

In ‘Total Thinking’ (1963), Fuller used a number of terms for his model of the ultimate designer, including ‘Comprehensive Designer’, ‘anticipatory design scientist’, and ‘comprehensive realizer’.

In order to move away from the thinking that caused the problems in which we live, Fuller recognised a need to invert the model. If politicians and business leaders were concerned with the finite, the short-term, the success of the business — then Fuller would concern himself with a bigger scope: the infinite, the long-term, the success of humanity.

One important perspective shift he made was treating the Universe as one-unit, and considering oneself as being a small part within that unit. What we’d now call Systems Thinking. But Total Thinking was more than this, it had an experiential component.

For example, consider that your brain is a single node that contains a small model of the universe, like a ship-in-a-bottle, or the ‘Schema’ of psychology. A topic such as Biology or Physics, is the sum-total of generalised information shared across the experts of that field. It’s the information that’s shared across a given number of brains who represent the experts of the field. Your task as a human is to model the total range of complexity in the Universe most effectively.

Fuller didn’t invent this mode of thinking. In fact, this approach has an ancient legacy, going all the way back to Classical philosophers such as Aristotle. Aristotle, for example, was an authority on over 250 topics (from Science to Politics, Poetics, Rhetoric, Metaphysics and beyond — and that’s just the basic works, the Organon), and influenced thinking in Europe for over a thousand years.

How could one person capture so much wisdom across so many topics? I became obsessed to learn more, because the formula for his extraordinary power wasn’t anything supernatural, but the result from a deep passion and commitment to wisdom. Aristotle avoided niching his thoughts within any one field — preferring to ever elevate his perspective above all fields. He had what we might today call, polymathic interests (or in Systems Science: ‘high variety input’).

This world-view is important because it summarises the logical opposite of most traditional education programs. Eventually all education becomes a form a specialisation, graduating to Degree programs, that become so narrow and specific that eventually the student knows everything about nothing. Or at least this is what the philosopher Bertrand Russell once observed.

The influential architect, designer, engineer and Cybernetician, Buckminster Fuller once described this specialisation, and observed how to overcome it, the designer must broaden their perspective from subject-matter expertise to encompass the whole universe. This is how he referred to this approach as ‘Total Thinking’.

Listing one of the problems of inaccuracy in “habits of thought”, Fuller described how designers can also become confused by the words they use. This happens because they make “…the substitution of the word ‘realisation’ for the very inaccurate use of the verb ‘to create’. Man creates naught. If he comprehends in principle, he rearranges locally in universe by realisation of the interactions of principles.” A reference to the scientific fact that nothing is ever created or destroyed, but merely transformed (discovered by the 17th century Chemist, Lavoisier).

So the Universe, in Fullers view, is more like a perpetual lava-lamp of reconfiguration, at many different rates (from the rapid movement of a dormouse, to the shifting tectonic landmass over millenia, or the birth and death of stars). The majority of that change happens without volition, other than that made by living creatures. And only humans are capable of doing so with intention. As Bruno LaTour once observed, ‘all design is redesign’ (2008), and actually plays the function of reconfiguring the structure of the things that already exist, and to shape them in ways that provide advantage to the shapers.

If this is the way the Universe works, then to understand it, we must abandon the idea of boundaries between subjects and use a mindset and perspective based upon the “total reality of universal principles”. (1963, 319).

In his work ‘Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth’ (1969, inspired by a generation who experienced the Moon-landings), Fuller described the problems with specialised thinking, because “society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking.” As a practical root-cause for this, Stafford Beer also described how the human-brain has limited computational power, and therefore must over-simplify the world in order to cope with such complexity. Fuller described how the mind of the child is more comprehensive than that of someone who is university educated:

“All universities have been progressively organized for ever finer specialization. Society assumes that specialization is natural, inevitable, and desirable. Yet in observing a little child, we find it is interested in everything and spontaneously apprehends, comprehends, and coordinates an ever expending inventory of experiences” (ibid, pp3).

A set of diagrams explaining how specialised thinking works. 3 fields, each with it’s own jargon and conceptual models. These fields are shared across a set of people. The Total Thinker collects data from across all fields.
Total Thinking as a means to avoid overly narrow thinking patterns. Using a specific technique of what Psychologists call ‘accomodation’.

His thinking was more aligned with the Buddhist concept of the ‘Beginner’s mind’, and the need to adopt a laissez-faire (wu-wei) perspective on reality.

And yet there’s also an inherent paradox, because the designer adopts an unfiltered, unboundaried world-view, and yet also considers how to improve it. In which case, the designer actively intervenes. The polymath Henry Dreyfuss agreed. When introducing Dreyfuss’ book Designing for People (1955, pp. 11), Richard L. Simon, the Publisher, observed how “A genius, it seems to me, is a man or woman who combines an enormous amount of “know-how” with the purity of outlook of a child.”


Now I know what you’re thinking: ‘Total Thinking’ sounds overwhelming. Given the latest issues with attempting to deal with information-overload and data-deluge, it’s not exactly something compelling to fill your brain with more information. But the point of Total Thinking is actually the opposite.

Total Thinking is designed to ‘do most with least’, that is, to model the universe in one’s mind with the fewest number of principles that can positively predict the greatest number of phenomena in the universe.

This was actually Aristotle’s secret. But he didn’t keep it a secret — he actively wrote about it in his works on Interpretation (De Interpretatione), Prior and Posterior Analytics (Analytica Priora, Analytica Posteriora) and his work on Categories (Categoriae) and Topics (Topica). This was the starting point for what Aristotle called ‘First-principles’.

This is highlighted by the fact that ‘Experiment’ and ‘Experience’ are the same concept. It’s the same root-word being used, only with First-principles, the experiencer takes the mode of ‘experiencing with intention’. Experiencing with intention, or ‘action-experience’ (in Aristotle’s lingo), such that knowledge and understanding is not as useful as applied action based upon that experience “action-experience seems in no respect inferior to art [i.e. Science], and men of experience succeed even better than those who have theory without experience”, yet Scientists have more wisdom than those of experience because they combine both, “…for men of experience know that the thing is so, but do not know why, while the others know the ‘why’ and the cause” (Metaphysics, Bk1:1, 981a, lines 0-30).

This was the one of the world’s first explanations of First-principles, a crucial component of Total Thinking. As Fuller later said in an interview, all of his achievements could be reduced to this fundamental idea: “The whole thing was finding out what was first-things-first in [the] Universe, and to do that you have to to get away from any ideas of specialization” (Playboy interview, February 1972). Specialisation, in this instance, refers again to the narrow, partitioned branch of knowledge of a particular field.

So, just as Science moved from Personal (inductive, Aristotle and Scholasticism), Terrestrial (deductive, Newton and the Humanists), Universal (Einstein, and the Quantum Physicists), so too must the principles from which we reason expand from specifics to universals. With this example, we can see how Science itself has followed the guide “to model the universe in one’s mind with the smallest number of principles that can positively predict the greatest number of phenomena in the universe”.

In using this phrase ‘specifics to universals’, I leverage what Karl Popper described as the key process of science. To be able to take a specific phenomenon, group it into a set of similar instances, and then to generalise those instances into a rule that summarises them all. This is what Popper called the ‘Universal Statement’ (The Logic of Scientific Discovery, ), or Principle.

Fuller described that the designer’s task is to collect all these generalisations, and to observe the full-scale of the structure of everything. Eventually being able to effectively copy-and-paste from one structure in one place, and place that structure somewhere else. As we saw earlier, Fuller called these Universal Principles. To learn more about this, I recommend Klines’ book: “Conceptual Foundations for Multidisciplinary Thinking”, described the science of finding the fewest concepts and ideas that predict the maximum range of phenomena in the world around us. Or perhaps even ‘Antidisciplinary thinking’, as Oxman expressed:

“This essay proposes a map for four domains of creative exploration — Science, Engineering, Design and Art — in an attempt to represent the antidisciplinary hypothesis: that knowledge can no longer be ascribed to, or produced within, disciplinary boundaries, but is entirely entangled.” (Oxman 2016)

Patterns and Synergies instead of Atoms

Another piece of Total Thinking was ‘Synergy’. In fact, if you’ve used or heard this word in a business context, then you have Fuller to thank.

In contrast to the modern design perspective — which has a mechanistic predeliction for ‘atomic’ pieces — in the works of Fuller, he described something quite different: he recognised the need for pieces, but that those pieces don’t represent the meaning of the constructed artefact. Talking about Synergetics, Fuller informs us in a way that relates to his maximally expanded mindset:

“The greater complex is never predicted by the parts of the lesser complex. Therefore, I surmise that to learn anything you must start with the whole –with Universe. Fuller, Synergetics.

Synergy means “behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately”. This is another example of ‘emergence’, a phenomenon recognised in Systems Science. You are an emergent system — because a single arm does not define a whole human. And neither does the arm represent the behaviour of the whole human.

For example: Water and its life‐supporting properties are unpredicted by the properties of hydrogen and oxygen examined separately from one another. Moreover, the extraordinary tensile strength of alloys is unpredicted by the tensile strengths of its constituent metals.

The Designer’s Compass

All great Designers also do a curious thing. They privately collect examples of what they consider to be ‘the greatest’ examples of design. Albeit well organised and structured, or simply a working-model of great go-to references. It’s largely this organic model that makes ‘becoming a designer’ more challenging than simply attending a bootcamp, because that internal model is the sum of all the experiences the Designer has ever had. And is often limited only by their exposure to variety too (another good reason to avoid Specialised Thinking).

If a Designer should “be able to effectively copy-and-paste from one structure in one place, and place that structure somewhere else” (as I mentioned), taking a more ‘total mindset’, then how does this work in practice?

One of the best examples, is Apple. Steve Jobs created products by benchmarking the best, irrespective of field, industry or domain. You cannot make “insanely great products” by parroting the past. Using the famous Picasso quote, Jobs admitted that the reason why Apple products were highly regarded was because they stole/sampled great ideas. For example, the typefaces in the early Macintosh were based upon the best historical printing typefaces. Effectively it was ‘copy-and-pasted’, sampling ‘greatness’ in one domain, and transputing it into another.

Ensuring you inspire yourself by studying the best examples is an important aspect. Not just the best in your business, or team. Not just the best in your industry. Not just the best designers. It has to be the absolute best. The best there’s ever been. Finding inspiration like this is important. The theory is: once you’re exposed to greatness, in your practice, your taste, you have good idea of what that greatness is. You have to reflect on it, observe it. Only then can you surpass it.

Comparison, as they say, is the Thief of Joy. But it’s also the Thief of Objectivity. Because “all things are relative” (so said Plato), and “mankind is the measure of all things” (so said Protagoras), we can take it as an Axiom. In fact, this has been proven by modern Quantum Physics, that states everything only exists because it’s related to everything else. This was originally proven by Einstein too, afterall.

But the working fundamental concept is to be Better, not the Best. Driven to improve, whilst being inspired by greatness is a perpetual means of improvement.

Fuller’s Comprehensive Design Manifesto

In my effort to encourage you to ‘Be like Bucky’, I have also curated some data-points that he outlined about his approach. In order to make them digestable, I’ve made an attempt to turn them into a Portfolio.

What’s interesting about Fuller was that he included himself in his Total Thinking world-view. He treated himself, his life, as an ‘experiment’. He kept a long record of his entire life, creating a database representative of a Life. This almost selfless devotion to scientific truth inspired so many of his achievements. Fuller described his motivation:

“I sought to “see” myself as others might and to integrate that other self with my self-seen self and thereafter to deal as objectively as possible with the comprehensively integrated self.” (Fuller Critical Path, pp. 124).

He named this amassed database the Chronofile. Before 2007, it might have been considered a very strange thing to do: to collate all data about oneself in order to deal with oneself in an objective manner. Since the wide adoption of Social Media since 2007, 7.7 billion people across the world now maintain a Chronofile via their social media profiles. The difference between Fuller’s and most people’s Chronofile, is that Fuller actively used it to assess his life choices, and take action on what he saw. He reviewed the data, and observed:

  • “…in my first thirty-two years of life I had been positively effective in producing life-advantage wealth — which realistically protected, nurtured, and accommo dated X numbers of human lives for Y numbers of forward days — only when I was doing so entirely for others and not for myself.” (Critical Path, 125)
  • …the larger the number for whom I worked, the more positively effective I became. Thus it became obvious that if I worked always and only for all humanity, I would be optimally effective.” (Critical Path, 125)

In 1927, Fuller made a conscious decision: “…instead of committing my efforts to the exclusive advantages of my dependents, myself, my country, my team”, Fuller actively refocussed his perspective. His affirmation was “…to lastingly improve the physical protection and support of all human lives, at the same time removing undesirable restraints and improving individual initiatives of any and all humans aboard our planet Earth.” (Critical Path, 124)

He defined a Manifesto for a Comprehensive Design Scientist. To begin he set some ground-rules:

  • Scientific, Critical Thinking: “…to do my own thinking, confining it to only experientially gained information…instead of trying to accommodate everyone else’s opinions, credos, educational theories, romances, and mores…”, “to learn the most from my mistakes”
  • Comprehensive: “Above all I sought to comprehend the principles of eternally regen erative Universe and to discover human functioning therein, thereby to dis cover nature’s governing complexes of generalized principles and to employ these principles in the development of the specific artifacts that would bene fit humanity’s fulfillment”
  • Anticipatory: “to develop my artifacts with ample anticipatory time margins so that they would be ready for use by society when society discovered … that they needed just what I had developed.”
  • Socially-motivated: “…whatever was to be accomplished …for anyone would never be secured at the cost of another or others.”
  • Using environment to change behaviour, not behaviour to change environment: “I sought to reform the environment, not the humans. I determined never to try to persuade humanity to alter its customs and view points.”
  • Positive change: “to result in producing more desirable life-styles and thus emancipate humans from the previously unfavorable circumstances.”
  • Industriousness: “never talk about the inventions until physically proven — or disproven.”, “to decrease time wasted in worried procrastination and to increase time invested in discovery of technological effectiveness.”
  • Charitible: “I sought never to “promote” or “sell” either my ideas or artifacts or to pay others to do so…All support must be spontaneously engendered by evolution’s integrating of my inven tions with the total evolution of human affairs.”

It seems to me that these suggestions provide a welcome and expanded world-view on what it means to be a Designer. But in case you’re still not convinced, here’s some further reasons you should become a Comprehensive Designer:

  • Create more value than you capture for yourself: Working in service to humankind.
  • Let’s focus on the right thing, for the right reasons: As I’ve remarked elsewhere, Charles Eames once stated that the most important role of the Designer was to determine whether the ‘thing’ should exist in the first-place. That means we’re supposed to be ‘the gatekeepers’, as Monteiro also stated. But this isn’t often practical to be the case.
  • It’s up to us — who else has the super-powers to imagine and manifest it? Whether designed intentionally or inadvertantly, everything about human life has been designed.
  • We already have the means — we need the vision. “It is now safely statable that our present knowledge and physical resources are adequate to the support of all humanity and all humans to come at a higher standard of living and enjoyment of life than have ever been experienced by any human.”

I leave my closing remarks to the geniuses of Clancy and Fuller, who stated this call to action way better than I could:

“Humans have thus far evolved the industrial complex designing which is only of kindergarten magnitude compared to the complexity of the biological success of our planet Earth. In its complexities of design integrity, the Universe is technology” (Fuller, Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking)

So together, let’s work to:

“Make the world work, for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.” (Fuller, Total Thinking, 1969).

By “transcending our psychological and cultural limitations we can be more ambitious, more imaginative, and more productive in ways that make other people happier and might change the world.” (Clancey, pp. 11)

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Jay Acutt

Product Design Leader, 15+ years. Purveyor of Paradigms. Questioner of convention. All views are my own.