Design moves down the stack

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The purpose of design, is to solve problems. Yet when most people think of design, we still think in terms of visuals, not functionality.

It's easy to do this because a lot of the time, those who have solved usability problems in an elegant way, have also worked hard to create visually beautifully interfaces. But it would be a mistake to think that function is born from beauty.

I do think though that we can say beauty is indeed born from function.

One of the things I've noticed about the people and companies I admire the most, are that they treat design as much as a programming/functional/build problem as much as they do as a visual problem.

When I say design moves down the stack, I mean this in both small and large ways. 'The stack' can mean anything from a programming framework, to a computer network, to an electrical grid.

Some examples that come to mind:

In each of these examples, we see design moving further and further down the stack, and I can only see this trend accelerating.

What this means in terms of impact, I would imagine, is that design and engineering will become so closely intertwined that it will be almost impossible to separate the two. And even if you could, there wouldn't be much value in doing so.

What I particularly like about looking at design in this way though is that it can help identify opportunities and hurdles alike, which can in turn be used as a guide.

Take Comcast as an example, a company we all love to hate. One of the things they could be doing, is trying to figure out how to make their own hardware obsolete. Their design could move down the stack by allowing you to subscribe to their service just by downloading an iOS app.

Interestingly, Netflix is now competing with Comcast (and HBO, Showtime, etc.) by moving their design down an entirely different stack. Not a technology stack - which they already have - but a content stack. They now make their own TV shows.

The other nice thing that comes with thinking about design in this way is that it opens up opportunities for all of us, even people who might not consider themselves a 'designer'.

Because we all have our own world-views and sets of problems, we can all find design direction by looking down the stack.