My Design Principles

Aug 16, 2005

It dawned on me recently: I'm a designer. Throughout the adult part of my 29 years, that's what I have done. It feels natural to me. They even have me designing things at the meditation center here. But today, I was thinking about the principles behind design.

In 7th grade, I got a horrendous paper route where most carriers lasted a maximum of one or two months. I redesigned the entire route for efficiency, "acquired" nearby routes to soon quadruple my daily delivery, converted everyone to automatic billing, and did some outreach in particular areas to maximize throughput. By the end of two years, I had "subs" delivering papers and I was making money sitting at home. All I did was design. And my design principle was utility.

In my first (and only) "real" job, I got the task of optimizing the C++ compiler. I had to make things run faster; again, I was in a group of half a dozen PhD's, three of whom had helped design C++ programming language (which is the base of hundreds of billions of software industry business), so this isn't quite your textbook work either. The job was not just to think out of the box, but to crush the box, send it to the recyclers and innovate from scratch. Interestingly, I wouldn't classify any of my ultra-smart teammates as intellectuals; one of them was into dancing, another into horse-back riding, another into Japanese art, another into languages and calligraphy and so on. Raw intellect sits in a cubicle for $100K a year with a supervising manager; but this was about innovaters who aren't told what to do. They just do. :) And the major design principle here was what I could call "creative intellect."

And then there's CharityFocus. When we started CharityFocus in April 1999, everyone was skeptical of the strength of a distributed, moneyless organization. It was new. No one had previously created a web-based organization for service, without any overhead. My design challenge here was organization itself: how can you harness all this positive energy into action without the beauraucratic overhead? In the last six years, CharityFocus delivered millions of dollars in services. And I feel it can be improved even more. Key design principle? Spirituality. In my talk at the Sante Fe Institute several years ago, I called it 'Ancient Wisdom, Modern Application'.

At each step, I would keep learning and today, I have three major design principles in my repertoire: utility, creative intellect, and spirituality. Utility comes from the ability to see things as they are without projecting your dreams onto it, creative intellect is the fusion of left and right brain such that you can seamlessly step inside and outside any box, and spirituality is the ability to draw lessons from nature itself.

Now, here is my aha-moment for today -- when I go deeper within myself, I am affecting all three of my design principles very directly: see reality as it is, master your mind and be in tune with nature.

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"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

"Real privilege lies in knowing that you have enough."