Design's Best Kept Secret Tool Is All About Contradictions

Sometimes I think that life is just a series of contradictions. We want freedom, but we also want to be in a relationship. At work, similarly, we want autonomy, but we also want to belong. When shopping, we want luxury, but we don't want to spend a lot of money.

These contradictory or opposing factors are dichotomies, two things that are mutually exclusive or that seemingly cancel each other out.

Now for the secret--their resolution is one of the best ways to create unique, long-term value. One of my favorite design mottos is a case in point, "less is more".

In other words, if you can make any two opposites co-exist, you can have your cake and eat it too.

Let's start with nature. In his book The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee explains that you need exceptions or variants to a breed for that breed to survive and continue. According to Mukherjee, for natural selection to happen, "two seemingly contradictory facts had to be simultaneously true."

"For Darwin's theory to work, heredity had to possess constancy and inconstancy, stability and mutation."

Now let's think of something more mundane, like shopping. When H&M does celebrity collaborations, like shoes by Jimmy Choo, Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney or David Beckham, you get luxury at affordable prices. That is dichotomy resolution.

"Karl Lagerfeld was the first, with design greats like Rei Kawakubo and Alber Elbaz following in his footsteps, finding new ways to reimagine their haute aesthetics for the high street." -Steff Yotka, Vogue

One of the more controversial but riveting examples is author and sex-columnist Dan Savage's viewpoint on how to resolve freedom and monogamy, in the New York Times Magazine article, Married, With Infidelities. Savage calls this, "monogamish". The more accepted version in the States is serial monogamy, which itself is also a resolution of opposites.

In architecture, my favorite practitioner these days is Bjarke Ingels work. Ingels explains his work as "Hedonistic Sustainability", a contradictory phenomenon that he finds different ways to resolve. His West 57th Residences in New York, a metal pyramid with a rectangular cutout in the middle to create a garden, is a good case in point as he explains in Archdaily--

"...creating a unique shape which combines the advantages of both: the compactness of a courtyard with the airiness and the amazing views of a skyscraper."

Once you start thinking in dichotomies you start seeing them everywhere. The trick is looking for ways to make them co-exist. Here is a simple guide, using the great chef and author Julia Child as an example--

01. Find a dichotomy--If you grew up with Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, or still use her recipes, you are benefitting from her resolution of two opposing cuisines--American and French.

02. List the qualities of each--Before Child, American food was quick, practical and bland (imagine the 50's and 60's). French cooking was time consuming and elaborate, but exquisitely delicious.

03. Mash these qualities up to generate multiple ways to make them co-exist--Child's genius was to make the great taste of French food accessible and practical to Americans. She mashed up the strengths of both cuisines to make a win-win solution that is valued to this day, almost 60 years later.

"She decided that they had to start from scratch--rethinking, researching, re-testing--and with American ingredients, American measurements, and cultural translations (for instance, what the French call le carrelet, the British call plaice, and Americans, sand dab or lemon sole)." Laura Jacobs, Vanity Fair

Now that you're in on the secret, what are some dichotomies you are tackling with and resolving? I would love to hear from you.

Design the life and work you love, and resolve dichotomies to create new value!