Design learning design

Design is Scale

I’ve just been listening to the We Are Open podcast interviewing Brian Alexander. During the discussion Brian talks about the idea of scale and needing to move between the micro through to the meso. This is something I’ve been fascinated in for quite some time and I’ve looking for words and terminologies to kind of think about this concept.

The visual analogy I tend to use is Google Maps where, you can view things from the globe right down to the Street View. Each level of zoom contains different information and different details – all of it is important, depending on the kind of journey that you’re taking. When you’re planning to go cross country, then individual streets don’t mean much, you want a zoomed out approach to work out what’s the fastest route, which places do you want to go through, which kind of roads do you want to tale – highways or more scenic roads. But when you get to your destination you have need to zoom right in because now you need to know that the individual turns will be, which streets do you need to travel on to get to your destination.

In the interview Brian talks about navigating the micro to the meso as a key part of being a futurist. He then is asked about whether these are learned skills, or is the ability to navigate between different scales something that you can learn to do? It was an interesting response from Brian and it made me think. The logical part of me says “yes, you can teach pretty much anything”, but then I started to ask myself, well, how do you teach these these skills? How do you learn to see things at different scales to be able to move between them at appropriate times?

It started me thinking about design itself. As a designer there is a kind of innate skill to be able to move through different levels of scale. I also started to I think part of that tied up with that ability, there is also something about the quality of the designer. I’ve seen certain designers who have been been able to apply creativity to only a very specific level of design. They’re amazing at operating within a level, say within a companies brand guidelines, but they could never actually develop the brand itself. But there is something about the designers ability to work across different scales. For example:

How does a logo embody the company values, the kinds of things they want to express to their customers or users?

As a designer you learn a lot about what matters at different scales and how they effect things at different scales. There is the ability to look at a small detail like a colour palette and being able to recognise the flow on effect that it has in being able to help define the nature of an organisation. It’s an incredibly interesting way to see the world. To think about something so small as an individual colour being able to project a much larger and much more complex idea about an organisation and communicate it clearly is an interesting way to look at how working at very different scales tends to work. That idea of the minute detail having an exponential effect on how things are perceived, the little things like font choices, spacing and typography, are so detailed and nuanced but these things play into the very values and perceptions of the organisation.

So with that in mind I started to think that the answer to this idea of scale isn’t really about design at scale — but that design is all about scale. Design in essence is about moving between different levels of scale and applying ideas and ways of seeing in order to solve problems that don’t just match that particular point of scale, but across it. And so design, perhaps, is the solution to scale.

Being able to move through different scales and to learn how to do that as a skill is to teach people how to design. Design is scale.

Now through this, I’ve been talking about design as a visual and graphic pursuit, but I see this as being just as applicable to learning design. It’s design but using different media, and using different ideas around what we’re needing to do and how we communicate those concepts.The point is it is designed.

The same challenges with scale exist like those micro things:

  • How things phrased?
  • How these words coalesce on the screen?
  • How are these presented to the students?
  • What’s the message here?

Then there are those larger things like

  • How does this the course express the learning outcomes that are intended?
  • How are we going to measuring things?
  • What are those kind of innate properties of the course.

And then again, zooming back out to the program and then thinking about:

  • How does this sit across a whole degree?
  • How does this all kind of add up to students being competent graduates?
  • Will they be ready for their jobs, careers and futures?
  • How will this reflect on the reputation of the institution?

I like this wholistic way of thinking about design, not just as a multidisciplinary field, but also as a way of working with complexity rather than against it. So much of the world around us is complex and designers are one of the key roles required to bridge the gap between levels of scale and the complexity that sits between them. Design has an innate willingness and ability to work across different scales, and to do so in a thoughtful way. Design is the way to learn how to deal with scale from a practical sense. As a discipline it lends itself


By Tim Klapdor

Passionate about good design, motivated by the power of media and enchanted by the opportunities of technology.

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