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Balance in Design

A balanced design intervention is one that (a) exactly fits its situation and (b) helps bring about a preferred situation.

What is Balance in Design?

The most basic purpose of a design intervention is to bring about a beneficial change in a situation; that is, to move from one situation to a more preferred situation. The reason for a situation being undesirable is that its architecture has driven it to a stable configuration - a balance point - that is dispreferred1).

Balance is a concept intended to help you think about situations, structure models about them, and predict and analyze the impact of design interventions to bring about preferred situations.

A naive analogy is what happens when you weigh yourself on a scale. Scales work because the force of gravity pulling the object down is balanced by some other resisting force like a spring or a counter-weight. Once any transients pass and the scale settles, the reading of the scale (your weight) is a quantitative measure of the balance between the force of gravity and the resistive forces in the scale.

The balance point (your weight) may be “good” or “bad” but that doesn't stop it from being a balance point. That is, a balanced situation is not necessarily a desired situation.

A more nuanced analogy is to consider your own weight again, but over the long term and with respect to your general self-satisfaction. Say you find that your weight is quite constant over the long term; i.e., your weight is stable. This is because your total amount of caloric intake is generally equal to the amount of energy your body burns - i.e., there is balance between key forces in this situation. This is not, however, necessarily a good thing. You may be significantly over- or under-weight. Such situations are not desirable. They are not desirable because there are other forces at work that are not strong enough to offset the forces causing you to be over- or under-weight. These forces could be concerns for your health, your ability (or lack thereof) to perform tasks or activities that you want to perform, a psychological2) desire to attain a certain aesthetic, etc. Your weight is balanced but dispreferred.

The concept of balance helps by providing an analogy that appeals to experience: to remain balanced while, say, riding a bicycle, you must constantly adapt to the various forces that would otherwise destabilize you - to keep riding the bike, you have to use the bike to balance yourself. Extending that analogy to the notion of balanced forces, it gives you a general strategy for seeking a balanced design: understand the forces at work, then look for ways to change the various forces (or introduce new ones) such that the overall balance point moves to a preferred situation. This emphasizes a very important feature of balance in design: it's dynamic, changing in time and in response to external forces.

Consider the design of the wood pencil to see how situational forces balance into stable (though not necessarily preferred) configurations.

Why is balance important?

Balance explains how systems attain stability, even if the stable configuration is dispreferred. All stable systems have reached a balance point of the forces acting on them; if the forces do not balance at all, then the system is unstable.

To attain a (preferred) balance point (and, therefore, stability), one must understand and manipulate the forces involved in the situation. One designs interventions to alter forces in a situation, with the intention of reaching a preferred balance point and, therefore, a desirable stability.

There is a useful corollary: if regardless of intervention, a situation keeps rebalancing to a dispreferred stable configuration, then you have not controlled for all the forces at work. This means your models of the situation are incorrect - or at very least incomplete.

The usefulness of balance is evident when considering phenomena such as the Jevons paradox. In a nutshell, the Jevons paradox states that an increase in efficiency will result in a corresponding increase in consumption that will consume all the benefits of the efficiency increase. In fact, this phenomenon is not a paradox3) at all, and is more accurately called the Jevons Effect.

Increased efficiency decreases resource consumption; users are then able to accumulate more resources they would have otherwise consumed. Usage accrues benefits to users. Since users are not necessarily rational and subject to a variety of biases, they will tend to give undue significance to the benefits when compared to the disadvantages of resource consumption. That is, users will prefer (perhaps irrationally) to consume the otherwise saved resources for the sake of the benefits of usage without recognizing the zero-sum nature of the game.

So, for instance, increased fuel efficiency of automobiles does not lead to a decrease in overall cumulative gasoline consumption, but does lead to an increase in distance travelled by car. Instead of saving money and the environment because of more efficient cars, people are choosing to drive more. It seems that the situation is stable regardless of changes to one force (fuel efficiency), but not in a good way.

If you have developed a model that does not predict this effect, then your model does not account for all the forces at work. Increasing the fuel efficiency force should, ceteris paribus, lead to lower overall gas consumption. But there are other forces pushing drivers to drive farther, which eliminate the gains made by increased fuel efficiency. Your model doesn't account for those forces, so you will not be able to rebalance the situation to the benefit of the environment. The concept of balance explains why your model doesn't work.

Balance is therefore a useful concept to help one think about problematic situations and increase the odds of eventually developing successful interventions.

When/Where is balance useful?

This section provides examples of how balance can help describe both preferred and dispreferred situations.

The “messier” a design situation is, the more likely that grounding one's thinking on balance will help find an appropriate design intervention.

First, here are two examples of designs that are balanced (because they are self-sustaining - i.e., stable) but dispreferred.

Example: Traffic Congestion

congestedtraffic.jpgFig. 1: Why does this happen? Building more roads and expanding existing roads can be demonstrated to do little to relieve traffic congestion except in the short term. Over time, traffic increases on new and expanded roads till (roughly) the same degree of congestion occurs.

This is because there are two groups of “forces” acting on this system, and when only one changes, the balance point will drift because the other group of forces has not also changed. But because only some forces have changed, the balance point doesn't (necessarily) move in a preferred direction. In this case, one group of forces attracts cars (and their drivers) to the road - convenience, speed of commute, gas consumption, etc. - while the other group of forces repels them - congestion that causes increased traffic, decreased travel time, increased gas consumption, etc. These two groups of forces act against one another and, in analogy to physical forces, reach an equilibrium point - a point at which they balance - where capacity on the road is overwhelmed to the point of causing congestion… but not such bad congestion that traffic reaches a complete standstill.

To fix this problem, one must look at the individual forces acting in the situation and change all of them so that the balance point moves to a more desirable state.

Ask yourself: Why do people use a congested traffic route? How many different reasons can you think of? Consider each reason you came up with, and try to describe the circumstances that lead to it. Each reason/circumstance pair describes one of the forces attracting drivers to use a congested traffic route - and presents an opportunity for a design intervention (other than just “new and bigger roads”).

Examples of reasons/circumstances include:

  • The driver didn't know that the route was congested until it was too late.
  • The congested route is the easiest to follow (fewest turns, lane changes, stoplights, etc.) and thus cognitively lightweight for the driver.
  • The driver is unaware of alternative routes.
  • Even when congested, that route is the fastest.

For each of the examples above, think about why they might happen, and what can be done to address those situations. Notice how many of the factors you discover and address have nothing to do with the highway itself.

Example: The Apple Lisa

applelisa.jpgFig. 2: The Apple Lisa. The Apple Lisa4) was one of Apple's few abject failures. It was, technically, an “awesome” personal computer, providing for the first time a variety of services and features that would not be seen again for decades. It boasted the fastest CPU, largest disks, and most powerful graphics of its day, and it used a new type of operating system, Lisa OS, that provided a number of programming features that had never before been made available on “personal computers.” And it cost \$9,995 (that's over \$24,000 in 2016-adjusted US dollars).

It failed miserably, selling only about 100,000 units5). Programmers had no idea what to do with the power of the software and graphics hardware. However, in some tasks, the hardware was still unable to match the needs Lisa OS put on it, resulting in sluggish performance on tasks that many people were interested in doing (like scrolling through documents). It was also far too expensive for the market.

There were a number of forces at work here. They all reached an stable balance point. Unfortunately, that balance point was one in which the Lisa failed as a product. What are those forces?

Now, here are two examples of designs that are balance and reached a preferred stable state.

Example: The Boeing 747

747-400.jpgFig. 3: The 747-400 passenger jet liner. One of the most roundly successful designs of modern times is the Boeing 747 jet liner. (See this article for more information.) Even though Boeing expected to make only 400 747s, a total of 1,500 have been made so far, and Boeing continues to make them - albeit at a reduced rate. Some of the features that made it a success include:

  • It was the largest passenger jet ever, and remained so till the A-380 was introduced in 2007 (that's 27 years).
  • It was twice as large as Boeing previous “standard” jet (the 707) but could take-off and land from conventional airports. Also, it's wide body allowed it to be short enough to fit in conventional airport parking areas. It didn't require, for instance, the special runways needed by the A-380. This lowered “entry costs” for airlines and airports to support it.
  • The design process was based on finding the ideal trade-offs between factors like weight, safety, comfort, flying time, and finances; this was something that hadn't really been done before in commercial aircraft engineering.
  • It's physical appearance was extremely distinctive, and it's “first class” accommodations were far beyond anything else available at the time6), which raised its “prestige” among both rich and conventional air travellers.
  • It was surprisingly economical to operate, depending on tried and true technologies. Later versions were upgraded to have more efficient engines, better electronics, and even composite materials to reduce weight.
  • It was just in development when the competing American Supersonic Transport project (supported by the US government) was cancelled for various economic, financial, and political reasons; this gave the 747 an edge in that it came to market sooner than any other comparable craft.
  • The wide-body structure of the 747 also makes it an excellent cargo aircraft, giving it a potential dual appeal, especially as the place aged and was no longer suitable to carry passengers.

These factors each led to the 747 finding a stable balance point that was highly preferred by all stakeholders, for a very long time.

Go through each of the points above, and think about why each contributed to the success of the 747.

Example: The PalmPilot Personal Digital Assistant

palmpilot5000.jpgFig. 4: An original PalmPilot Personal Digital Assistant. The PalmPilot7) was the very first Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), which was one of the “parents” of today's smartphones8). Originally conceived in the early 1990's by Jeff Hawkins and colleagues, it started the wave of portable digital tools that has become a defining characteristic of the “digital age.”

Discussed elsewhere in more detail, the original Pilot was originally intended to replace the leather bound agenda preferred by executives. As such, it had to fit that situation perfectly, but also provide new functions that agendas could not (such as fast search for stored information). The resulting research and development developed two technologies that would become essential to every other mobile/portable device after it: (a) “instant on”9) and stylus-based interactions10).

Eventually eclipsed by Blackberry and Apple, Palm remained at the forefront of PDA and smartphone development for more than a decade - an eternity in “internet time.” And the reason for its success was its ability to find the best balance of technology, cost, and usability - where “best” is always defined with respect to the expectations of the user community.

Review the background material on the Pilot, and list and explain the forces that were at play that led to its particularly stable balance point.


  • TODO Generative description of how to instance the concept or perform the method.
  • TODO Describe resolution /deliverables.


Beware unjustified forces.
When identifying the forces acting in a situation that lead to a certain balance point, do not just depend on your own reasoning. What you think may be a significant force in a given situation may not be a force at all, let alone a significant one. Ideally, you must conduct research to discover what the actual forces (and their magnitudes and rates of change) really are.

Not all forces are “quantifiable.”
Since we're not talking about physical forces here, it may be very difficult to quantify the forces needed to determine balance points. In such cases, however, there are various other methods that can be used. For instance, one may use ranking systems and Likert scales to determine the “values” of forces in usable way. Every case will be different, so special attention must be given at the outset of a balance calculation to ensure that measurements are being made as robust and as precise as possible.

See Also

  • TODO Salustri's research on balance.
  • TODO Alexander's work.
Yes, disprefer is a word, albeit an uncommon one.
and probably highly irrational
paradox: “a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.” (more)
“Apple Lisa”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -
Apple did learn its lesson, though. In 1984, Apple introduced a “stripped down” version of the Lisa that did only and exactly what Apple's core users needed - i.e., a computer that was extremely well-balanced. They called it the Macintosh - the progenitor of a family of computers that still exists today, over 3 decades after it was first introduced.
The 747 could be configured to have an entire night club complete with grand piano on its upper deck
The other parent of the smartphone being the cellular mobile phone.
Every previous device required significant time to “boot.”
Palm invested heavily to create Graffiti, the system of glyphs by which one could write letters and words on a Pilot PDA.
design/balance.txt · Last modified: 2020.03.12 13:30 (external edit)