26th Sept 2021
4 Minutes read

What is First Principles Thinking in Design?

Elon Musk wasn’t kidding.
IntroductionAn Antithesis to UncertaintySo how does First Principles Thinking actually help?At work
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It was the autumn break of 2006. I was a simple little third grader jumping around the house paying zero attention to my holiday homework. I hear the neighbourhood kids playing outside. I rush to check what’s up and I see at least 3 of them on their skates. Fascinated as ever, at the prospect of not walking but gliding on the road, I hop down the window sill and hang my head down slightly disappointed thinking of mom obviously not buying me a pair of those skates. I was not entirely given up though. Suddenly, I ask myself, how to have skates without buying them (or stealing them). The answer was to make one of my own. I then asked, what do I need to make skates? Simple. A base to place your foot, wheels and something to hold your foot and everything else in place.

That, right there is one of my cherished encounters with First Principles thinking (also FPT from here on). So, did I make the skates? YES! with cardboard, spare wheels from office chairs and well, sellotape.Did the skates work? Have no doubts, they didn’t. But did I find out how skates were made which entirely subsided the disappointment of not having one in real? absolutely. But why?


Of all things that First Principles Thinking does, it gives you the power to take on a challenge and to break inhibitions.

In this blog we’re talking about:

— How FPT actually helps

— How FPT helps at work

But before that, why is FPT so effective?

An Antithesis to Uncertainty

Uncertainty is one of the mightiest barriers to progress. It brings down hopes, hampers confidence and unfortunately justifies non-investment of efforts. This is not only for us, who pursue genesis and innovation of solutions through design. Uncertainty plagues all fields of work. The only community that seems to have a handle on it is the scientists’. And that’s because they acknowledge uncertainty and work with it. So, creative fields like design, call for certain kind of mindset, one like First Principles Thinking, that helps to take on a challenge and look past barriers, for once not at probabilities but the possibilities, that lie beyond.

Possibilities can excite us. It propels our imagination, dampens our inhibitions and voila, we are somehow ready to give the damn challenge a try.

So how does First Principles Thinking actually help?

  1. A Healthy Disregard
    First Principles Thinking helps in disregarding the enormity of a challenge or a problem that otherwise deters one from investing any kind of effort. And it is not news that —no effort means no outcome.
  2. Rock-solid Foundation
    Ideally no solution is ultimate. There’s always scope for innovation because like everything in this cosmos, a solution is subject to evolution. But, if it is contestable, it will only add to the problem. So it is always better to drill to the bedrock of a problem to lay an infallible foundation for its solution.
  3. Decoding Original Intent
    Original intent is so important when it comes to innovation. If we don’t know where things began and what they began for, it will be difficult to make sense of the problem in the first place, let alone solving it.
  4. Diagnose & Troubleshoot
    Diagnose and troubleshoot the exact cause or requirement. FPT helps with knowing component parts of a problem. More often than not, knowing the component parts of a problem, is job half-done.
  5. Solution becomes obvious
    Done right, the path to the right or the best solution becomes obvious.
  6. The Power of Imagination & Possibilities.
    Be it becoming the character in our favourite stories or closing our eyes and sitting inside the space shuttle hurtling through the cosmic expanse, the power of imagination alone is enough to stimulate our creativity. And sometimes, creativity is just having the guts to pursue what we imagine. Thereby making a possibility, a probability.
  7. Opportunity to do something original
    Building a solution from the ground up seeds the need for multidirectional perspectives. Call it invention or just connecting dots and creating — one thing has the potential to lead to another, giving rise to new questions and newer answers.

At work —

  1. Make fewer mistakes
    Because next steps become obvious, everything becomes due-course, which decreases the probability of making mistakes.
  2. Save the cost of iteration
    Saving time and the cost of iteration is super important for anyone. It’s not about being content with the first draft. It is about knowing the what and how which saves endless revision hours and the stress that comes with it.
  3. Getting Things Done
    Again, never be bowled over by the complexity of the challenge and let it inhibit your productivity. Our brain will quickly take us on the path of least resistance and make us think it’s okay to not do something. And then, the work remains pending, your ideas never see the light of the day and their potential, is lost forever.
  4. Optimal Usage of Resources.
    Uncovering component parts of a problem helps in making clever use out of otherwise unrelated objects. And that—is how this leads to more and more innovation. Never let absence of perfect set of resources dictate your project and get it to a grinding halt.

First Principles Thinking is a conscious choice we make despite having other ways out to solve a problem or best a challenge because decisions made with First Principles Thinking are rarely untenable. It helps us rattle the status quo, upend the roads already taken and to look beyond the horizon.

This is our take, this is who we are. At Frozen Iris, we solve problems through first principles thinking.

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