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Subtractive Value

July 4th , 2014

I was originally going to write something about a subtractive view of design, or rather how design should focus more on how to take things away than how to create. 

After all, truly good designs simplifies, removes obstacles, eliminates problems. Good design brings clarity, reduces uncertainty. And yet we often think of design in terms of what we create, of the shiny newness. Whether it's the tangible output or the tools of the process we're always adding.

But even the most tangible of design objects, the prototype, is primarily concerned with subtraction; we prototype to reduce uncertainty, to take away the unknown. 

It's easy to forget the core value of subtraction when so much of design is about creating, and there's a lot that could be written (and certainly has) about how to frame design in subtraction terms. What's more interesting, perhaps, is how subtraction could be more of a unifying framework for ways of working that intersect with design, such as the Agile and Lean approaches we've been exploring, with others, more recently. 

In each of these fields it's worth asking, "what are we trying to take away?" And in answering that question perhaps we get to a simpler set of principles through which to explore how we develop things of value in the best possible context. 

In service design we are constantly trying to remove things: uncertainty around what to create, barriers to usage, walls between silos, misunderstanding of users' needs. Many of these things apply to Agile approaches too. A focus on functioning outputs seeks to remove uncertainty in a similar way to the prototypes of design. Agile also works hard to remove the organisational barriers, to eliminate as much as is possible the obstacles to trust and shared purpose.

And with Lean, we're working hard reduce waste, to unblock whatever stands in the way of creating value. We're trying to remove the internal and external blocks, as much as internal and external is still a valid way of viewing things. 

In everything that seeks to create value in the widest sense, from the people we make things for to the teams that help make them, the true focus should be subtraction. It's possible to dig deeper into it, create lists, explore frameworks, but that wasn't the aim of this post. It was something I was thinking about and wanted to start writing down. It would be good to know what others think.