Let Design Die — Design for Dark Matter

Death unlocks a novel context to the current complex system.

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This article is my note when discussing a design theory for social services with Jo Harrington, director of community design NPO: Worldwide International Global Solutions (WIGS) in London.

Jo originally taught at Goldsmiths College in London

Jo advocates the concept called Social Imagination which releases the imagination of organizations and societies against wicked problems such as climate change, immigration issues, and natural disasters. It encourages us to transcend existing frameworks and discover new possibilities.

Excerpt from WIGS website

As shown in the figure above, communities and society are bounded by the wall of the “conventional concept” (left). Jo and his company WIGS encourage these organizations to collaborate within them and create a collective system and operation (center). As a result, organizations can open up new possibilities that are not bound by existing concepts by themselves (right).

Personally I can understand why this way of thinking is happening in the UK because Speculative Design [1] and Service Design [2] were also born in the UK, and current design theories such as Transition Design[3] and Civic Service Design[4] are also heading to tackle social and global issues.

In the discussion, there are some intriguing topics on how to apply this theory into practice.

In actual design work, they think from the perspective of Preservation, Evolution, and Letting Die. The following is my interpretation of their approach for large and complex systems such as social infrastructure, administrative services, and organizations that they redesign.


  • It is an approach to keep the current state unchanged.
  • Ask what to keep, how to preserve, what to change to maintain.
  • Emphasize tradition and philosophy, and explore the essential state through analytical and logical thinking.


  • It is an approach to create a better state by modifying the current state.
  • Ask what to improve, how to acquire, and what to change to evolve.
  • Emphasize increment and reform, and explore the ideal state through visionary and design thinking.

Letting Die

  • It is an approach to get rid of the current state and create a completely new state.
  • Ask what to be replaced, how to generate, and what to change to reproduce.
  • Emphasize imagination and mutation, and explore the possible state through critical and speculative thinking.

Now, it is still abstract, but “Letting Die” is an impactful word. Jo advocates that Death unlocks a novel context. After hearing this, I realized that I was only thinking about “preservation” or “evolution” when I redesigned something existing.

For example, when rebranding a corporate identity, I might discard the existing visual designs, but I want to “preserve” the corporate philosophy. We sometimes say words such as zero base, scrap & build, pivot, but these words aim not to return back to zero but to “evolve” into a better state. I’ve never thought about building architecture by “letting the idea of ​​making an App die.” Letting Die here indicates the completely different future that appears when the current premise, system, and restriction are entirely removed.

The bigger the system, the harder it is to allow it to cease and die. The more complex the system is, the harder it is to assume that it will disappear. I think it is essential to use the strong word “Die” purposely and raise the argument to consider different opportunities by “Letting Die” in parallel with “Preservation” and “Evolution.”

At first glance, “Die” seems to be thought of by removing the current system without a trace, but the meaning of “Letting Die” here is more neutral. For example, even if someone dies, memories and influences with that person will remain in the surrounding people. The culture of listening to music using vinyl records may have died (as a major trend), but the fundamental desire to listen to music anytime and anywhere has continued.

Jo called it a Decentralized Thread. Even if something dies, the lineage that has been continuing to there will not be shattered but will remain distributed in some way. In other words, the question provoked by Letting Die is not “What happens to our society if it dies (if it is removed)?”, but “What will remain after it dies?” or “Is there a new framework that can satisfy our needs even when it is gone?”

Dan Hill [5] describes the social-scale design that I mentioned in this article as Strategic Design, and he argues that we have to tackle the “Dark Matter” that had been “designed” only by a handful of politicians so far, consisting of Structure, Policy, and Procedure.

Dark Matter, defined by Dan Hill. This diagram is created by the author.

Based on that, Jo further defined the “Deep Dark Matter” by adding Identity, Power, and Value, which are the elements that make up the Dark Matter in both individual and society level.

Deep Dark Matter, defined by Jo Harrington. This diagram is created by the author

The discussion with Jo was up to this point, but to organize the contents, I tried to make it a framework. I created a chart with Preservation, Evolution, and Letting Die on the horizontal axis and the Deep Dark Matter on the vertical axis. Using this, we can discuss how to deal with and design the Dark Matter as a designer in the concept phase of a service or system redesign project.

Dark Matter Analysis Framework, created by the author

To apply this concept into UX/UI Design, I also designed the “Letting UX Die” framework using James Garrett’s Five-layer UX hierarchy [6]. But, again, the most important thing is that conversation about not only “Preservation” and “Evolution” but also “Letting Die” occur within the project.

Letting UX Die Framework, created by the author

“Is there a new system that can satisfy our needs even when it is gone?”

This question is the start point to consider beyond our common sense and restrictions.


  1. Anthony Dunne, Fiona Raby, “Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming,” MIT Press, 2014.
  2. Marc Stickdorn, “This is Service Design Thinking. Basics-Tools-Cases,” BIS, 2014.
  3. Terry Irwin, “Transition Design: A Proposal for a New Area of ​​Design Practice, Study and Research,” Design and Culture Journal, 2015.
  4. Eric Gordon, “Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice,” MIT Press, 2016.
  5. Dan Hill, “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary,” Strelka Press, 2014.
  6. Jasse James Garrett, “The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond (2nd Edition),” New Riders, 2010.

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