Skip to content

Design it like an organism

One of the clearest distinctions between mechanisms and organisms was given about two hundred years ago by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He described a mechanism as a functional unity in which the parts exist for one another in the performance of a particular function. The clock was the paradigmatic machine in his time. Preexisting parts, designed to play specific roles in the clock, are assembled together into a functional unity whose dynamic action serves to keep track of the passage of time. An organism, on the other hand, is a functional and a structural unity in which the parts exist for and by means of one another in the expression of a particular nature. This means that the parts of an organism—leaves, roots, flowers, limbs, eyes, heart, brain—are not made independently and then assembled, as in a machine, but arise as a result of interactions within the developing organism.

Brian Goodwin, How the Leopard Changed Its Spots—The Evolution of Complexity

Always, have a picture of the whole—product or system—while designing, deciding and building. Understand, or at least have a theory of how each change or a new feature is going to affect the whole. There are a lot of techniques out there—design synthesis, design sprints, or prototyping—to visualize the whole. Better use them to not end up with a flaky mechanism.