Analyzing How Great Designers Think

Eliminate assumptions with the “why”

Shared Heuristics From the Design Greats

  1. Simplicity
  2. Inside-out craftsmanship
  3. Embrace Failure
  4. Never leave well enough alone
  5. Reframe problems
  6. Customer doesn’t know what’s right
  7. Analogical Insights
  8. Eat Your Own Dog Food
  9. First Principles
  10. Be a Zealous Missionary

Taken from William Lidwell’s presentation at Struktur.


Conversations about design often get into the production or idea creation and are easily relatable. Ultimately, that means these conversations aren’t unique. However, Struktur Event invited William Lidwell to speak at one of its annual meetings. This conversation is different. And, it’s not just about design. Lidwell analyzes the approaches and problems the greatest designers applied that made them unique and revolutionary. How did they think?

The following are a few key notes I made for myself after watching the presentation.

Analyzing How Great Thinkers Think, blog post image

Removing Assumptions

Reframing the problem and asking “five whys” helps to remove assumptions we may place on what the problem presented is verses what the problem actually is. Asking why five times helps to dig deeper to identify the true problem where a solution may produce something very different from where an assumption may have begun. In his example, Lidwell talks about working on creating a better drill-bit. Why? Why do people want drill-bits? They want to make holes. There are lots of ways to make holes without a drill-bit. Why? Why do people want holes? After some informal discovery, they learned ” that most people wanted want to hang pictures.” Well, I can think of a number of items in my own home today that allows me to hang pictures, and not one of them is a drill-bit. That’s what asking why reveals.

The Bait and Switch

William Lidwell and I have something in common besides being from Texas. I had grown up in the country, where subdivision had no meaning. Every home was unique. In the homes I lived in, all four sides were always brick. Always. When I bought my first home in a suburb of Austin, Texas, I spent an additional $9,000 to wrap all four sides of the home with limestone–why wouldn’t I?

Many homes in the area were three sides with brick and the fourth side had vinyl siding. Some homes went the opposite direction with only one side with brink (the front) and three sides with vinyl siding. I’ll never forget the neighborhood I was in and the builder’s name when I first discovered this practice. When I saw the homes with just the front side with brick and thought, ‘These people want the quality and style of brick but clearly cannot afford it.’ Engraved forever in my mind was to never buy from a builder like that. Lidwell calls this “the bait and switch.”

Simplicity, MAYA, and Well-Enough

Use simplicity and the MAYA Prinicple (most acceptable yet advanced) to achieve the most effective and compelling design. For example Apple continued to chip away at the design of the iMac while increasing functionality—progressive reduction. Result = elegant simplicity. Additionally, Apple pushed that line of MAYA further to novel and away from typical by spending a lot of time and money on education. They educated the users.

Lastly, Apple clearly embraced the “Never leave well-enough alone” philosophy. One feeds naturally into the other when dedication to each principle is solid.

Additional Topic Reading

You may also be interested in another interesting and related article entitled “12 qualities of effective design organizations: Learn what it takes to make the most of your design team.” by Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner in O’Reilly Media. Merholz and Skinner “present a set of qualities of effective design organizations. Assessing a team’s performance against each of these qualities clarifies opportunities for improvement.”

  1. Shared sense of purpose
  2. Focused, empowered leadership
  3. Authentic user empathy
  4. Understand, articulate, and create value
  5. Support the entire journey
  6. Deliver at all levels of scale
  7. Establish and uphold standards of quality
  8. Value delivery over perfection
  9. Treat team members as people, not resources
  10. Diversity of perspective and background
  11. Foster a collaborative environment
  12. Manage operations effectively