The Five Principles of Good Systems
It’s hard to know if something we make is good. It seems a simple question. But how to you evaluate it? Gunpowder has helped shape geology, but also wage war. The famous Scheele's Green wallpaper laced with green arsenic seemed good, but then it turned out it wasn’t. Strict, discipline-heavy schools were good and now we realise we were making generations of drones. Asbestos was great and now it’s clear it was a disaster. Social media has attracted billions (and made billions of dollars) but is now proving like the poisoned apple of fable; sweet to look at, dangerous to consume.
It’s an important problem. We keep building products and services that act like parasites, have disastrous effects on the environment and have unintended side effects. When we ask if something is good, most people seem to rely on some form of performance measure. How fast is it growing an audience? How often are people using it? How much money does it make? The last metric implies a correlation money and value; that a product or service is ‘good’ if it makes money.
Classic performance measures might make economic sense, but there are deeper social, environmental and cultural issues at stake. These sort of narrow measures are not enough to inspire us to build better (healthier) systems. I suggest we need a set of principles. A principle is a fundamental truth that provides a foundation for belief. In this case, our belief that something we make will be good.
I propose a list of five principles, selected from a wide range of sources, including philosophy, history, economics, science and design. I have tried to find principles that are exclusive (they don’t cross over); reinforcing (they build on each other) and complete (they cover the spectrum). I want to inspire myself, and others, to build things that we can be proud of handing down to those that follow us.
Principle 1. Things must be valuable
The things we make should solve real problems, address real needs and create opportunities for humanity. Technology by itself is not valuable. Only technology applied to solving a problem is valuable.
This prinicple was inspired by Victor Papanek, a designer focused on how design could be used for social good. He was one of the first to promote this cause in the 1960s and 1970s, when our age of excess began. He notes, “The most important ability that a designer can bring to his work is the ability to recognise, isolate, define, and solve problems.” (p. 151, ‘Design for the Real World’).
Principle 2. Things must be honest
The things we make should be free from manipulation in both their design, the way they are communicated to people and the way they exchange value. This shows integrity in the contract between the people who make a thing and the people who use it. For something to be honest, the ideas behind it should be based on sound science, design and engineering.
This was inspired by John Perkins, an economist famous for providing an expose in his book ‘Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,' to how economic manipulation is an extension of modern imperialism. He notes, “People have deceived each other since the beginning of history. Legends and folklore are full of tales about distorted truths and fraudulent deals… However, much as I wanted to conclude that things were the same as they had always been…I knew in my heart that this was not the case. Things had changed. I now understand that we have reached a new level of deception, one that will lead to our own destruction - not only morally, but also physically, as a culture - unless we make significant changes soon.” (p. 162, ‘Confessions of an Economic Hit Man’).
Principle 3. Things must be of quality
The things we make should be of quality in a physical, psychological, social and aesthetic sense. Quality means that they fit in with and enhance our lives, they don’t deprecate us. They should resound with pride that we made them as good as we were able to. To ensure quality, we should only make as many as we need and they should last as long as possible.
This was inspired by the designer Dieter Rams, noted for focusing on the simplicity and quality of the things we make. He notes, “We really should consider very carefully whether we constantly need new things. I have been arguing for a long time for less, but better things.” (Kinfolk)
Principle 4. Things must be sustainable
The things we make have to be sustainable psychologically, socially, economically and environmentally. This is a delicate balance between a web of stakeholders. Things can’t benefit organisations more than people, or vice versa.
This was inspired by Paul Hawken, an economist who was among the first to link business activity to its impact on the environment in his book “The Ecology of Commerce.” He notes, “To create an enduring society, we will need a system of commerce and production where each and every act is inherently sustainable and restorative.” (P. Xiv, ‘The Ecology of Commerce’)
Principle 5. Things must adapt
The things we make must always be ready for change. Circumstances change and therefore systems need to change to keep up. What worked for a while may stop working. Things that worked one way may end up working another, or causing unexpected side effects. Sometimes our things may need to even cease to be if they are no longer suitable. As long as we learn from their birth, life and eventual retirement, then we can evolve. Most crucially, if we build smaller scale experiments we can fail and learn.
This was inspired by Victor Palchinsky, a little-known Russian engineer who thought deeply on the issue of dealing with complexity (courtesy of Tim Hardford), “What Palchinsky realised was that most real-world problems are more complex than we think. They have a human dimension, a local dimension, and are likely to change as circumstances change. His method for dealing with this could be summarised as three ‘Palchinsky principles’: first, seek out new ideas and try new things; second, when trying something new, do it at a scale where failure is survivable; third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.” (p. 25, ‘Adapt’).
By evaluating the things we make according to a set of concrete principles, we can aspire to something greater. Products, services and systems that are in balance with the world.
Anderson, Alex & Mandell, Molly (2015) Dieter Rams: As Little Design As Possible. Kinfolk, Vol. 23.
Hardford, Tim (2012) Adapt - Why Success Always Starts with Failure. Picador.
Hawken, Paul (1993) The Ecology of Commerce. Harper Collins. New York.
Papnek, V. (1985) Design for the Real World, 2nd Edition. Academy Chicago.
Perkins, John (2004) Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Penguin: England.
Lighthouse Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash