1. We Are All Designers

Fall Design Lessons

Change is hard but it’s a necessary part of the work we do. As we head into fall, take your cues from Mother Nature on how to pull it off.

One of the most challenging things about designing for change is that if often feels counter-intuitive. Unnatural, even. That’s because we have to let go of something that has always worked in order to grasp something new with both hands.


This is especially true of process change. And in this case, the old adage, “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” can have dire consequences. Picture a modern news journalist trying to file a breaking story by using telegraph or snail-mail when everyone else is uploading their story to the cloud. Imagine a cardiac surgeon ignoring new techniques because the ones from five years ago seemed to work fine. Epic fail.

Although the term “built-in obsolescence” is often anathema to conscientious designers, Mother Nature offers many proofs that sometimes we must intentionally throw out the old so that something new and better can take its place.

Birds molt, by design. Some crabs can regenerate claws. And both male and female caribou annually drop their antlers. But get this, bulls shed after the rutting season and pregnant cows, only after they calve. Nature has designed it so that the periods of vulnerability that come with change happen when risk can be minimized.

Heading into fall, I anticipate the moment when the Sugar Maples start to change color. You don’t need to understand the science behind photosynthesis to appreciate the explosion of vibrant hues that autumn brings. As a bonus, the fall color change offers us a perfect lesson in design.

Deciduous trees use sunlight to make their food. As the days grow shorter in the fall, the tree knows it must make it through the winter on stored food.  So it closes up the veins that carry chlorophyll into the leaf (the green stuff) and we start to see the other brilliant colors that were stored in the leaf all along. When the seal is complete, the leaf drops to the ground, and provides nutrients to the soil that are essential to the ecosystem.  In the spring, healthy new leaves grow in place of the old ones.

The next time you are designing a solution, take a page from nature. Consider the evolution of your process, anticipate the inevitable drivers of change, and be willing to shed, as necessary, to make room for new growth.

Even better, design your solution so that when it’s no longer useful, it goes out with a burst of color.