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Elegance Backfire

When I initially received this story from a colleague and friend, I agreed with his initial assessment that this bridge design is a really elegant way to solve a unique problem. But this article goes further than the traditional wow-factor of a great-looking design that solves a problem with optimal investment.

The author of this piece actually questions the value of elegance and user experience in the context of driving, under the theory that too much elegance in driving can actually backfire, and create more accidents. The theory goes that if things go too swimmingly, then the driver will not be as alert, and can be lulled into a sense of security which would not prepare him/her for the reversed lane configuration on the other end of the bridge.

This is what we at Capital D Design call a deep design assessment. Design is thinking through the challenges presented, and articulating and/or creating a scheme that addresses the multiple issues looking to be resolved, in the order of importance to the end goal. Deep design goes a step further, where the unintended consequences are also imagined up-front, and are also factored into the initial design specification.

It rarely benefits the designer or project manager to contemplate too many unintended consequences, because even assessing these can place doubt on the design spec itself. And, a deep designer is in a competition with a less aware or less honest designer, then only one of the designs would come with a series of risks and additional costs to mitigate these risks. Either way, deep design appears to add risk to the equation, and usually adds costs. So, why engage in deep design, then?

It can be argued that when the right incentives are in place (for instance, the committee responsible for deciding on which bridge design to pick is held accountable to the number of accidents and/or deaths created by the bridge), deep design is the best design process to engage in. Too often, project managers and executives are not held accountable for the right outcomes of a project, and are therefore do not have the incentive to pick the design that will ultimately have the best outcomes.

When the right incentives are not in place, or if no design team introduces deep design analysis, we as leaders, managers and people end up with mediocrity that we see far too often in our business (and political) culture.

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