How to think and work in systems? 

I wrote the following text in 2020 for Flexible Visual Systems. Four years later, it is still a valid reminder of how to stay creative within the margins given by software and hardware. When software relies more and more on A.I. analysis of current design trends and the software user’s creativity is limited to variations of these current design systems, we unlearn to see, read, and create beyond the norm. To become creative, we must become critical of our tools, hack the systems, and challenge our audiences. Frictionless Design stops us from questioning, and questions are essential for education.

“Education is a social process; education is growth; education is not preparation for life but is life itself.” — John Dewey

Let the system
do the work

The process is
the result

Everything can
be programmed

with everything

Do it wrong

1. Let the System Do the Work

We are used to working on concrete formats, like business cards, letterheads, brochures, or posters. Intuitively, you would think of a concrete design in
a concrete format. With system design, the approach changes. The concrete applications become examples of how the system is applied. In fact, when you design specific applications, you think about the general rules and how they adapt to the different formats. You will notice that once these rules work, it is easy to work on other formats, while in the absence of a system, each design for a new format has to be invented from scratch and, therefore, takes longer. 

2. The Process Is the Result

Each approach leads to a different result. As you know by now, the system serves not only to control design but also to define the approach to design. Whether you develop a form-based or transformative system, the approach influences the outcome. So before you develop a system, be aware that the choice of system is a design decision. 

3. Everything Can Be Programmed

Any design can be turned into a system. A system is present as soon as comprehensible rules are present in a design or subsequently interpreted. The design of systems is about making subjective decisions into objective rules to be able to share them with other people or automate them with machines. This is exactly where the power of systems lies. When automating, you can accomplish much more than you would have been able to do on your own. Remember, though: even when the process is computer-aided and at times very complex, communication as described in this book remains between humans, which means that humans should intuitively understand the start and endpoint of the process. 

4. Program with everything

Programs develop their full potential when you program them. Let the programs do the work for you. Use variables. Automate as much as they can. Your task should be to develop concepts and systems, not to perform mindless repetitive tasks.

5. Do It Wrong

Although programs are great at executing systems, they are not great at helping you develop new ideas. They were developed with preconceived ideas about what the design process and outcome should be like. That is very limiting as the process itself is influencing the result. Just look at the circular grids of Josef Müller-Brockmann and compare them to today’s grid-based design. Müller-Brockmann was far more innovative than we are nowadays because he used a pen, a compass, and a ruler, which allowed him to think much more freely than we can think using today’s layout programs. Although it’s very tempting to return to the pen, ignoring the advantages processed design gives us is nonsensical. Instead, we should start to hack our tools. Experiment with using the wrong programs and don’t operate them how they should be operated. Programs should always be the designer’s tools, not vice versa.