Outside-In/Top-Down Design Process

Normally, my design process is based on the “form follows function” philosophy: you have a problem, you define the criteria/limits, and you build your solution up from that. But I’m beginning to notice that there are times in my design process where I would immediately come up with a “cool” solution, and then I look for meaning and useful characteristics of the solution to explain my “reasoning” afterwards. When I think of that, I am reminded of the “BS your way” approach to presenting your projects.

I try not to use this approach with my work, as I find that I am more confident presenting my work when I know what I’m talking about. But sometimes, it’s just inevitable. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Oftentimes, it is after your work is complete do you finally see what it really means and how it solves the problem. It’s like watching The Sixth Sense when you already knew the ending (which was spoiled for me by watching “50 First Dates” first).

As much as I prefer to base my designs on logic and reason, there are times (probably by definition) when they don’t yield creative results. I believe this is when I would resort to this outside-in process, where analogically, instead of determining how much space each room of your house needs and expanding from within, I would build the outside of the house first, and then go back in and divide the spaces into rooms and such. (Now, I don’t know how architects design houses, so maybe they always use the latter approach and I just wasn’t aware of it.)

I think the outside-in approach to design would yield interesting results sometimes because, if we use my horrible house analogy again, if you build from the outside in, you would have a new constraint of limited space, so you would approach your room division differently than you would if you build from the inside out and can have as much room as you want to grow. You could divide the space the same way so every room is smaller; you could combine spaces; you could build up and down; or you could have a convertible space (like if your bed drops down from a wall).

In any case, now that I’m aware of this approach, I’m ready to embrace it as an option in my design process for when I’m stuck with my logic and my reason.


2 thoughts on “Outside-In/Top-Down Design Process

  1. curious cause

    Giving that anything you come up with is rational within your own frame of reference (because whenever you “immediately come up with a cool solution,” it’s still within your own capacity to come up with that), it’s possible to explain your approach based on your personal rationale. That rationale is relying on you life experiences, so it could be logical to people that have similar experiences, but not logical to people with different experiences.

    Experience will be an influence here, so the more time you engage in this process, the more you know why you’re doing what you’re doing, given that you know more about your own experiences as you age. When your own personal life experiences merge with emerging design patterns, it often time results in creative output. That’s why, as you mentioned in another post, being immersed in the design patterns is not a good idea, and that designers should always develop a stronger personal point of view (like skydiving). Following design patterns is crucial for making money, so you still have to know what’s going on, but there needs to be a healthy relationship between what you know through learning, and who you are, in order to create work that you are confident in talking about.

    So, I think the approach of making something and evaluating its value afterward is not irresponsible for designers. In fact, it should be embraced. It’s like, there are probably many different combination of reasons why you chose to do something (the intricate mixture of your knowledge and experience), but you don’t have to be able to explain everything, because nobody can explain everything about themselves.

    1. Ivan W. Lam

      Thanks for your comment, Kaz! You put it much more elegantly than I do. And thanks for reading the blog; without comments, I never know if people really read it.


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