proposal: design is the second derivative of just plain doing stuff

hypothesis: we don't have a very good theory of the economics of design, because up until the last few decades we haven't really needed one

why i'm interested: sick of being on the hook for externalities

why you might be interested: even if you don't care about my success, your success is inextricably linked to my success

Taming the risk of what I term highly-synthetic work has been a central theme in my independent research for several years now. Highly-synthetic work, as I am defining it, is that which passes through a long chain of feedback loops to get to the end state—if there is such a thing—and likewise for which the cost of information-gathering, cognitive processing and communication, far outstrips the cost of materials and rote labour. In other words, a highly-synthetic artifact costs way more to design than to build.

Building as Anchor and Counterweight

Conventional engineering projects are governed on two sides by material constraints: the physical properties of the materials that dictate their performance, and the economics of acquiring said physical materials, and physically arranging them in space.

For example: if you wish to construct a building, it is a fairly straightforward formula to go from intended use to square footage, which when crossed with the building site, will yield roughly the expected number of floors, staircases, doors, windows, HVAC machinery, elevators and bathrooms, as well as the quantity of concrete, steel, plumbing, ducting, wire, doorknobs, fixtures, et cetera. Take that figure and double it, as construction labour currently costs roughly the same as materials. Then, add an additional 25%—i.e., 20% of 100%—to be divided as needed between the architect and structural engineer. The result is a fairly accurate Fermi-like estimate for the scope of an ordinary construction project.

Cost Structure of a Construction Project
20.0% 12.0% 60.0% $1M
20 Design: 200,000 80 Construction: 800,000
Total project cost, less real estate:
12 Architecture: 120,000 40 Labour: 400,000
8 Engineering: 80,000 40 Materials: 400,000

Using an equivalent hourly rate of as a benchmark, and handwaving away capital spent on research, experimentation and presentation materials, we can see that around 600 -hours are appropriate for a project of this size.

This rigid relationship between the aspiration of usage requirements and the reality of physical material dictates the economics of every engineering project: every structure, every vehicle, every mass-produced object—and it does so in both absolute and relative terms. The highly-synthetic part of the job, if it exists at all, is eclipsed completely by the conspicuous and palpable calculus of industrial-era labour and capital. Design, in the grand economic scheme of engineering projects, is a rounding error.

If it isn't sufficiently clear: even if, in a conventional industrial project such as that illustrated above, the cost of design is double what was anticipated, this only represents a 20% overrun on the entire project.

As the production of meaning becomes increasingly orthogonal to the dictates of physics, an increasing fraction of the resources, devoted to a given endeavour, gets consumed by design. The high capital costs of industrial projects not only anchor the investment in design, but also mask its excesses: an overrun in design is difficult to make as massive as an overrun in construction. Moreover, the enormous cost of misallocated materials and labour in construction—not to mention often the risk of actually killing people—makes overruns in design somewhat easier to swallow. The incalculable cost of getting the design wrong at least partially forgives any need for extra resources to get the design right.

The business-minded will argue that even 20% is a lot, and it is, but of course the classic counter-argument is that you either pay that 20% or you lose everything, and then some.

The cost of physical materials—and the labour to work them—fixes the order of magnitude of resources allocated to design, by itself being an order of magnitude larger. What happens when we cut that anchor loose?

blah blah wank wank don't read past here it's not done yet

Parkinson's Law and the Fuck-it Factor

Whatever your methodological disposition, the one thing everybody who has some experience with the design process will agree upon is that design consumes arbitrarily large, contiguous chunks of human attention, and will consume as much as you are willing to give it. Attention is of course embedded into time, and so naïvely, more designer-hours equals more design, equals better design—or at least equals more refined design. This is not an unreasonable expectation, as long as the time allotted is about enough to iron out the core concerns of the thing being designed.

I say about enough because often the people doing the design will pay the difference of an underfunded project by working extra hours for free. Of course, if a design project is too deeply underfunded, or simply not given enough time on the calendar—perhaps only a little more than a few percent—then no quantity of donated hours will save it.

It is obvious when design is underfunded and/or rushed, because it fails. By no means, however, is a lack of time or money the only way a design project can fail. Successful design necessarily has enough money behind it—and more importantly, enough time. The question here, is how close to about enough such resources was the project granted? In other words, how much was, for lack of a better expression, really needed, and how much was waste?

I scare-quote these phrases because I believe just about any designer of any kind would insist that every last jot of their work is necessary, and they wouldn't be lying. Processes adapt to available resources. Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. While more money can buy better equipment, hire more/better people, pay for more research, and produce more compelling presentational material, the minimum amount of attention a given design problem takes to solve is invariant, as design problems care neither about your burn rate, nor your production schedule.

The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned.

Frederick Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month, page 17

Design projects often begin as utopic hallucinations, and degenerate, in the worst cases, into harried scrambles to meet basic contractual obligations. It seems to happen at every scale. In fact, I challenge you to find one person you could call a designer who doesn't regularly work right up to the last available minute.

An apt caricature of architects and industrial designers alike, is that they have such lavishly-appointed offices, because they have to sleep there.

Fuck it is what you say as a designer when you have run out of time. Pencils down. Whatever you have right at this instant, that's what's getting shipped. The question, at this point, is what, exactly, is getting shipped?

In design, there are the concerns which appeal to the designer's striving for an elegant and sophisticated product, those which generate a materially effective product, and those which satisfy the obligations of the contract. These concerns do not necessarily align.

Nevertheless, every design project has a central set of interrelated concerns which are essential to the fulfillment of the contract, in partial overlap with another set of concerns which are essential to the success of the product—distinct from the strictly legal obligation—and the rest are just refinements.

There is a horizon across which a design will satisfy the contractual obligation, and another horizon across which it will satisfy the material success of the product. Refinements, you can more or less noodle on those forever.

Naïvely, again, we might think to stack the design process in that order: first, do what you can to ensure you get paid instead of sued, and then worry about your long-term reputation. So-called refinements, grounded in neither of these concerns, are nice-to-haves, and they get whatever resources are left. Even if these targets were extricable from one another, arranging them too strictly in this manner is a mistake.

When design is an appendage of construction or manufacturing

A Theory of the Economics of Design

The argument implied above is that the dominating status of materials and labour in human endeavour has also dominated economic theory—especially over the last two and a half centuries of industrialization, wherein almost all of said theory was conceived. Indeed, it wasn't until the second half of the twentieth century that treatises on design began to appear.

The argument implied above is that the economic properties of the design process are poorly understood, because design is outweighed—or at least masked—by larger, but more well-understood costs.

The symbol-generating industries, with the possible exception of Hollywood, have few to no industrial-era costs behind which to conceal the cost of design. Design, for them, is naked and out in the open.

A paradoxical, but perhaps realistic, view of design goals is that their function is to motivate activity which in turn will generate new goals.

Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, Third edition, p.162

Hofstadter's Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.

Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel Escher Bach, p.152

Engineering is the first derivative of just plain doing stuff. Design is the second derivative.

A Theory of the Economics of Design

When human endeavour becomes unmoored from the cost of materials—because there aren't any materials to speak of—design no longer has anywhere to hide. At this point we could use a means of understanding what we're looking at. In order to do that, I first have to clarify what I mean by certain words.

Just Plain Doing Stuff
This should be self-explanatory: tying your shoes, making a sandwich, laying a course of bricks. There is no deliberation in just plain doing stuff—no economic considerations, no weighing of alternatives, no PowerPoint pitch. The goal is well-defined, the task is obvious, the capabilities have been internalized, and the resources have been allocated. All human activity reduces, eventually, to just plain doing stuff.

Engineering is about making things work, versus having them fail—where fail is defined as exploding, collapsing, or just sitting there doing nothing. Engineering is also concerned with taking something that already works, and making it work more efficiently. This means that engineering primarily has to do with quantities: quantities of steel, concrete, fuel, velocity, tensile strength, electric charge, radioactivity, worker-hours, and inexorably, quantities of dollars. Engineering assumes a clear objective, and its own objective is to reconcile that with reality.

It is worth mentioning that engineering is extremely closely related to management. I personally consider them to be, more or less, two facets of the same discipline.

Design, by contrast, is about resolving gaps, conflicts, and ambiguities. That is to say design is about form and relation. Design is also getting things to work, in the engineering sense, when they don't work yet. Design is appropriate when there is not a sufficiently clear objective, when the respective costs of configuration A and configuration B are roughly equivalent and what matters is their relative fitness, or otherwise to justify the allocation of additional resources in order to achieve some particular qualitative outcome. Design, therefore, is the act of sharpening ideas to a point, such that they can be either engineered, or just done.

These definitions may not be what we are used to; they do not match up to conventional job titles. We will see that the processes engineering and design are still compatible with the epithets engineer and designer. Indeed, through the lens of these definitions we can see that what designers do is mostly engineering—a claim I will elucidate in due course—and engineers do at least some design. Moreover, these definitions enable us to the relate the concepts together as such:

Engineering is the first derivative of just plain doing stuff. Design is the second derivative.

Calculus is not a tool I normally use in my line of work. Nevertheless, I got to thinking:

Ironically, This is Rocket Science

Information is both the material of design, and its product.

consider the problem of building a rocket that can reach escape velocity

how it behaves during launch

the fuel is being ignited and ejected out the back of the rocket at a frightening rate

the effect of gravity is dropping off according to the inverse square law

the air resistance likewise, which means not only is there less air in the way of the rocket, there also is less and less to push against

so we can see that the rocket's fuel efficiency improves dramatically as it leaves the surface of the planet.

where it touches down is in the cost of materials and labour, which are ultimately linear functions, measured in kilograms and hours, which are normalized to dollars.