Design | 6 min read

Unflattening design


Apologies if you clicked on this post expecting a proposal for the next visual design trend to replace flat design.

We won’t be having a heated debate on skeuomorphism, or on the affordance of flat buttons. But we will be trying to get new perspectives on design, taking inspiration from Nick Sousanis and responding to the imagery of his great graphic novel “Unflattening”.

This is your design problem. At least, this is how you see it. It’s very clear to you, and you don’t understand why that’s not the case for everyone else.

Take this engineer. This is how she would describe it. To your eyes, it looks unnatural and convoluted.

Or what about this designer on your team? This is the way he talks about it – completely missing what you see as the core of the problem. It’s like you are living on different planets, unable to share a common language.

Or perhaps it’s just a matter of perspective.

Our left and right eyes combine their two individual images to form a single vision. Similarly, different points of view on a problem help define a richer picture. They unflatten our perspective.

The design problems we face aren’t flat – they’re overflowing with multiple dimensions, which introduce new constraints and opportunities. It’s time we started using perspective to create better design decisions.

Opening your second eye, and some others

Most of us have a natural tendency to stay in our comfort zone. As designers, we’re reassured when we’re sitting in front of our screen, playing with Sketch or Framer. We spend time building prescriptive frameworks to rationalize our work. It’s how we end up creating systematic step-by-step design processes that tell us to always start by sketching our ideas on paper, that there must be a prototype phase in a project.

By industrializing the way we work, we’re just flattening our perspectives, becoming very effective at always doing the same thing and missing opportunities to be truly innovative.

Knowing when to unflatten

However, doing the same thing all the time can sometimes be useful. Design is best described as a constant switch between two mindsets: an open one (exploration/diverging) and a closed one (execution/converging). John Cleese explains this well in this amazing talk:

“We need to be in the open mode when we’re pondering a problem, but once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it.”

The most difficult part of design is switching between these two modes; they require radically different mindsets. Good designers need to alternate between being very naive and totally confident. More importantly, they need to know when to be naive, and when to be confident. Often, designers are confident too early. But a confident designer with a flat perspective is usually heading straight to the land of missed opportunities.

Being naive, on the other hand, is the first step towards unflattening. It helps us challenge our habits, to fight routine, and tackle the problem from different angles.

Look from a different angle (what if?)

Getting new perspectives is all about variation – variation in the places we work, people we work with, and tools we use. A very simple exercise is to tear yourself away from your desk and your screen. It’s incredible how working in a different context can bring new perspectives. It’s one of the reasons why so many big companies have adapted a design studio or lab.

Constraints can also help put you in a different context. Mobile-first design is an interesting example. A large part of its success comes from the fact it’s a very constrained approach. The constraints of mobile encouraged Uber to strip everything back to one button ordering. And we now have the phenomenon of Uberfication, with products and services available with a tap of a smartphone.

Another interesting constrained approach that is really easy to apply to any design project is to try tackling a design problem through random behavioral triggers.

Zoom in (how?) and out (why?)

The mental models we use to manipulate problems are a bit like fractals. They’re recursive patterns of systems –problems inside problems that you’ll want to explore in different resolutions. Like a painter who’s constantly switching between the small details and the big picture, you need to develop a mental agility in the way you manipulate models.

Zoom in, start to think about how to answer your problem and get a closer look at the details. Zoom out, try to get back to first principles step by step, asking “why?” after “why?”, and see the big picture.

By zooming in and out, you’ll realize your design problem is made up of lots of smaller problems, but is also part of lots of larger questions that represent many different systems you can explore. Finding these connections will transform your view of the initial question.

Borrowing some eyeballs

Exploring a problem by yourself is fine; you’ll get quite a long way with “What if…?”, “How…?”, and “Why…?”. But if you want to travel faster and further, there is no better way to get a radically new vision on a problem than listening, borrowing, and integrating other people’s mental models. That doesn’t mean you need to accept or follow everyone’s point of view. But you do need to be aware of them and their potential to enhance your own view. Nick Sousanis explains this question very well:

“In recognizing that our solitary standpoint is limited, we come to embrace another’s viewpoint as essential to our own.”

The problem is that to integrate new mental models, we need to leave our own initial thoughts behind us. That’s a very difficult process.

Why do we build memorials and monuments after a war? We create them so we can free our minds. That way we don’t have to always think about these events, or even to worry about forgetting them anymore. There’s now a physical artifact that acts like a totem to remind us, so we can start filling our minds with new material.

It’s the same reason people create to-do lists. And it’s exactly what you should do when pondering a problem. Whether it is a Post-it Note, a storyboard, or even a prototype, find a way to unload your mental model in a physical format. By creating artifacts that save your ideas, you clear your mind to make room for new ones, especially those from other people. Because it’s too easy to nip an idea in the bud when your head is already full.

Become a modeler

At its essence, design is a modeling activity. Our job is to define and share mental models with our users, our colleagues, and even with our “future selves”. Being able to unflatten those models by constantly manipulating them, and by slowly revealing a larger and richer map of interrelated ideas is one of the most important skills of a designer.

We should always be pushing to unflatten our perspectives. Because as Sousanis says:

“Our world is never smooth nor flat anywhere.”