Is Design A Machine?

Can design be reduced to formulaic solutions to a common set of problems? Can creativity be stripped from the process? Once you’ve chosen a design concept is the resulting finished design inevitable?

Steam engine: Merlin Centre of Social History

The questions come from a post by Kyle Meyer, entitled Design is a Machine that I recently read. Kyle’s post evolved from the work of Sol LeWitt, an artist I’m unfamiliar with who saw art as a machine rather than something creative. Kyle points to the following quote from Sol LeWitt at the start of his post.

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. This kind of art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories; it is intuitive, it is involved with all types of mental processes and it is purposeless. It is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman.

While I think some aspects of design can and are reduced to the mechanical I don’t think it can be said to be a machine. I know I don’t want to see it that way or it would instantly lose all interest to me. But it’s not simply about what I want.

Quoting Kyle:

There are formulaic approaches to visual problems that often yield a solid result or act as a foundation for commonly-defined creativity (grids, typographic scales, everything that is The International Style).

All true, however these approaches are tools and the same tool in different hands can lead to very different results.

We all have code libraries to quickly reproduce a menu or site layout and we follow established patterns that lead to similarities in finished products, but there are still many design choices made along the way, including which tools and patterns to use.

grammar: the study of how words and their component parts combine to form sentences

The primary function of a web designer is to communicate. I don’t think there’s a single or inevitable way to communicate.

A simple example is the choice of wether to communicate with words or pictures. A concept doesn’t inevitably lead to one or the other.

If you give 2 designers the same problem to solve and give each the same predefined concept and insist they use the same grid system, typographic scale, color scheme, etc., I don’t think you end up with the same website.

There would naturally be a certain amount of similarity because the problem is the same and many of the constraints will be the same, but the finished product will still be different.

Each of us does put something of the machine into our creative process. You might fall back on the same half dozen typefaces or rely on one of a small handful of layouts for projects. Still I think there’s a wide variety of possibilities even with the same fallbacks.

The machine in design is the constraints we impose in order not to have to make every one of the infinite choices available to us on every project. You fall back on the same palette of typefaces in order to put more of your attention into choosing colors. You fall back on familiar color schemes in order to put more attention into a choice of grid.

However, you program the machine and there’s creativity in that programming.

When designers consistently fall back on a set of tools and use them as a constraint time and again it’s where their style emerges.

creativity can solve almost any problem

George Polti reduced all stories to something like 36 different plots used again and again. Yet there are an infinite amount of stories within those 36 plots. The same problem with the same concept and the same set of constraints, doesn’t automatically lead to the same inevitable solution.

A game a chess could theoretically be reduced to a finite number of possible moves, with each position on the board having a best move leading to an inevitable conclusion. Those finite possibilities though, are so numerous that for practical purposes they are infinite. The game does not inevitably play itself out the same way each and every time.

A designer can reduce his or her designs to a machined process, however it’s only at the discretion of that designer, which implies choice and a non-machined creativity. Design itself isn’t a machine even if we sometimes choose to feed it through machines of our creation.

Whether or not our designs become a machine is wholly up to us. And because we make that decision, design itself isn’t a machine.

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  1. Very philosophical but it’s good thing here!
    Creativity in Chess is almost dead once it comes to humans vs computers. The last time human where able to won supercomputer in chess was back in 2005. But of course creativity still applies in humans vs human games.

    For the design: you reminded me difference between companies like Google and Apple. Google is data and algorithm driven while Apple is design drive company. The both can exist and innovate but each works completely different.
    Same here, machine can create designs for some things but in most cases humans creativity is the way to go.

    • Thanks Mike. You know I was debating the paragraph about chess and thinking about computers being programmed with all the positions and best moves. I thought of taking it out of the post, but decided to leave it in. Last I checked most designers were human too. 🙂

      True about the different philosophies behind Apple and Google. I think in the end creativity is the way to go and I still have a hard time seeing how the same constraints and the same concept automatically lead to the same design solution.

      Maybe a better chess analogy would be to have two players start with the same opening, say 8-10 moves in and see if every game automatically led to the same last 8-10 moves. I think even with a computer as one of the players you wouldn’t always get the same last few moves at the end.

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