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On Being an Intelligent Designer

May 11, 2010 In Web Culture By Joshua Allen

I once heard an automotive designer remark on the design quality of a competitor, saying, “They have a factory in Dusseldorf that chews up steel and craps out Porsches.” He was conveying his opinion that the cars were created in a blindly mechanical manner, with no soul or intelligence behind the design. Indirectly, he was communicating his belief that design should be intelligent and purposeful—not mechanical.

skullI think about this anecdote when I hear myself saying things like “This project has evolved over time.” And it’s not just me: I’ve noticed people conflating the word “evolution” with “progress” in at least two print magazine articles just this month. People do it all the time—if you pay attention over the next week, I bet you’ll notice at least a few occurrences.

So here’s the thing: evolution is exactly the opposite of intelligent design! Evolutionary theory was developed to describe how a “Blind Watchmaker”, acting purely through chance variation with no intelligence whatsoever, could produce the various species of plants and animals. So when I say that my project has “evolved over time”, it literally means, “We randomly threw crap at the wall, and this is what stuck.”

This might be true for some projects, but we normally want people to think we applied some personal intelligence to our work. Try to think of other examples where we commonly use the word “evolve” and none of them really hold up. Did AJAX “evolve”,for example? Not really. AJAX grew through widespread experimentation that was intelligent and purposeful,not through chance variation.

OK, so maybe I’m being extreme. Everyone knows you mean “progress” when you say “evolution”, right? But I can’t help thinking of a gigantic machine, blindly chewing up random piles of steel and crapping out Porsches, every time I catch myself using “evolve” this way.

Horses and Porsches

Let’s invert things, just for the sake of argument. If evolution through blind chance variation has no place in our design projects, why does it have a place in the speciation of plants and animals? Whether you believe the original animal species were created by a blind watchmaker or by an intelligent Designer, it should have little bearing on animals going forward.

big horseOur ancestors were able to achieve amazing results with very little technology, turning wolves and foxes into the crazy variety of domesticated dog breeds we see today. Stand up close to a horse, and try to imagine the centuries of intelligent human design that led to the domestication of this powerful beast whose greatest happiness in life is to go exactly where his human masters want him to go.

skullAll of this animal engineering stopped hundreds of years ago, before the industrial revolution. Why? Today, we have immensely better tools. Not only could we do a much better job at the selection process needed to create new breeds, we could even create entirely new species synthetically from DNA! We talk a lot of smack about how much smarter we are than our ancestors, but I haven’t seen anything as spectacular as a Clydesdale or Weimaraner come out of the post-Darwin age. Because of our ancestors’ courage, we had horses to usher in the industrial age and Chihuahuas to provide comic relief in so many movies. What new innovations will we bequeath upon our descendants?

Doing What You Do

You probably aren’t a position to be creating new species or breeds of animals. But you are in charge of your own creations. Don’t simply go through the motions and then passively expect “evolution” to carry the ball forward. Be purposeful and intelligent, and let your imagination go wild. Whether it’s more like a Clydesdale, Chimera, or the fabled Labradoodle, make your project a reflection of your best ideas.

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17 comments so far. You should leave one, too.

Yoshi Blue Yoshi Blue said on May 11, 2010

I appreciate the very generous compliment and thank you on behalf of my kind. We''re humbled and will continue to delight your kind, whether it be through "questionable modeling stints": or "unquestionably dorky stunts":

Offbeatmammal Offbeatmammal said on May 11, 2010

hmmm... now where have I heard that quote before ;)

One project I''m working on at the moment is suffering from this... there''s a bunch of blind watchmakers all putting their 2c in and, while some of the ideas are awesome, the result is less than the sum of all the parts because there is no clear evolution (or ownership)

Jacob Jacob said on May 12, 2010

The thing with design is you are designing for such a wide range of people, and you have to keep their interests, preferences and such in mind.

We created our own usability tool in order to get this array of people involved without over involving them. We just send them a test, and get very simple results back. This is enough to give us an idea what does and doesn''t work for them, but doesn''t ruin the design or aesthetic by having too much external input.

Maybe this is intelligent evolution?

henchan henchan said on May 12, 2010

It seems natural to equate product design and product "evolution" with evolution as it occurs in biological organisms. And thereby to introduce "Intelligent Design" of living organisms as a stalking-horse. Certainly the same terms can be applied to both domains. Nevertheless, I think there''s an over-simplification going on here. Evolution in life occurs over very many generations and very many instances of each organism in each generation. Such that the analogy with product design can only good if the product happens to have the possibility of high variability across many design features and also can be iterated frequently against some kind of "fitness" algorithm. Google''s search algorithm is the best case of product design which matches these criteria that I can think of. There are many individual uses of the search engine and also many iterations (alpha/beta testing) of the product''s features. For such a product, though I am no expert, I believe it is correct to say that evolution and design both had a part to play. Other products are wholly designed because the metaphor is not really applicable. We should not infer that good product design always requires absence of evolution (think of modelling aerodynamic cars using genetic algos). Neither should we infer that intelligent design of products somehow validates ID''s arguments against the theory of biological evolution.

Brian Henderson Brian Henderson said on May 13, 2010

Why is the carrot orange? By design of course! How & why is an interesting design story.

Love the interesting underlying theme in this post. Evolutionary design; making small changes over many iterations. The heart of refining a great design.


TracyLucas TracyLucas said on May 16, 2010

I don''t know that the "experimentation" you applaud and the "throw(ing) at the wall" that you don''t are really so different.

Same thing, two words. It''s all in the outlook, really.

What matters is the willingness to educate yourself and then approach the project in professional play, IMHO. Art isn''t found through formula, and great design comes from art.

Ya gotta throw the spaghetti, whatever you may decide to call it. :)

Mike Mella Mike Mella said on May 16, 2010

I see what you''re saying, but to follow through with the analogy, evolution is a process by which an organism becomes more efficient, so in a way, it *is* intelligent design: it''s a reaction to environment.

Designers sometimes warn against too much group input with the saying "A camel is a horse designed by a committee." A camel, however, is perfectly adapted to its environment. There''s nothing wrong with it just because it doesn''t look like a horse.

That''s taking the expression too literally of course, but the point is that evolution results in progressively more perfect iterations, so using that term to refer to a design is actually complimentary. The force behind the evolution is not that relevant.

Hendrik-Jan Hendrik-Jan said on May 16, 2010

If we consider that the intent of an artist is energised by the whispering inteligence of inspiration, then all in its most basic form is divine in nature.

LP said on May 17, 2010

I see what you''re saying, but I second the others on here who say that''s something of an oversimplification. The earliest horse was a fox-sized animal. It evolved to fit its environment and from there humans used selective breeding to exaggerate desired traits in one breed or the other. Surely, in this case, we would count experimentation to fit a given task or environment as evolution and the fine-tuning as selection (natural or artificial).
It''s a good point, but I think the analogy is a little flawed.
And artificial selection still continues today - look at racehorses, pets, and meat animals.

Rob Repta said on May 17, 2010

Absolutely amazing article. It''s one of my personal beliefs that a designer should design with intent, and not just spew out random design elements that are en vogue.

G Campbell G Campbell said on May 17, 2010

Poor comparison to call a Porsche factory something with no soul or intelligence. Both the car and the factory are products of some very thoughtful design.

Joshua Allen Joshua Allen said on May 17, 2010

@G Campbell -- You''re totally right; they''re great cars. That''s why the comment struck me. A Porsche is the opposite of mindless design, which is why an insult like that creates such a stark contrast. None of us would like to have our work criticized like that, which is why I think "evolution" isn''t a good word to describe what we do.

@LP -- Right on. What I want to know is why we don''t have guard gorillas, or chimp breeds that look like English bulldogs, or Dolphin breeds selected for super intelligence. Why haven''t we created any completely new species, now that we have DNA sequencing capabilities?

Joshua Allen Joshua Allen said on May 17, 2010

Regarding the charges that I''m oversimplifying, I dunno. If the charge is that I''m being overly pedantic, then I''ll agree :-)

The theory of evolution requires 2 things -- A) chance variation and B) natural selection. When people use the word "evolve" colloquially, they *sometimes* just mean "B". In other words, they mean that the project (or animal breed) was modified to meet changing conditions, or modified to fit more perfectly with existing conditions. But that''s not technically evolution, that''s just adaptation. It''s only "evolution" if the adaptations came about purely through chance variations. Usually when we adapt our projects, we make specific changes that we think will work. We don''t just pick a random number and make literally random changes.

The chance variation component is pretty important. It''s practically impossible to get a job as a biologist or geneticist while insisting that the variations in evolution "may or may not be chance variations". That''s an immediate no-hire. The chance variation component of the theory is essential dogma of the scientific profession.

And even non-scientists tend to take sides in the "evolution vs. creationism" debate. In this debate, "evolution" is almost synonymous with chance variation, since both sides agree that life is pretty well-adapted to the natural environment.

Of course, it gets worse. Because "natural selection" doesn''t mean "adapted to the environment", either. Natural selection means that nature killed off or pruned all of the things that didn''t work. That sometimes happens with our projects, but usually the emphasis is on making new stuff rather than just brutally killing features before we even know if there is an alternative. So, *technically*, when our project is modified to adapt to the conditions, that is the exact opposite of evolution.

Not that I''ve cured myself of using the word, but it sure is a weird imprecision.

Rachel said on Jul 1, 2010

Very interesting post, thank you.

Reminds me a bit of the quote ''A camel is a horse designed by a committee''.

joyd said on Sep 23, 2010


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