Accidental or intentional design?

Illustration by Christian Arnder for this article.

At the local coffee shop a man behind the counter is putting food items inside a glass case. He aligns two sandwiches straight on a plate and puts it into the case, then turns his attention elsewhere as he slides the back door of the case closed.

As he does this, the glass door catches, just a little, on the end of one sandwich. The plate—and both sandwiches on it—rotate, ever so slightly, so they're no longer facing straight-on, but now they're turned at a slight angle to customers looking from the other side of the counter.

First I smile at the inconsequential accident. Then, after a moment, I realize this presentation—the now slightly rotated sandwiches—appears much more pleasing than the straight-on way they were originally placed. The food stuff appear more dynamic and captivating than the bland, dead-on presentation they were first placed in. It's a very small thing, but it conveys something worth consideration.

I don't think anyone else noticed the subtle, accidental shift. The coffee shop worker himself was seemingly oblivious to the rotation of the sandwich plate. But I could see how some individual might look at the display case in its state and mistakenly think of just how well the presentation of food items was designed. They might even think someone put deliberate effort into the presentation. Of course I knew the truth, and now so you do you.

When we look out at the world for examples of good design, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking something that might not have been all that thought-through or intentional as being inspirational. We might even turn to the designer as someone to admire and learn from.

Yet, because we often only ever see the final presentation of a design—a nicely polished image, or a snapshot of a design in-progress, captured somewhere online or even, yes, a plate of sandwiches at the local coffee shop—it's hard to know what all went into the display. For all we know the thing we find so thoughtful and well designed is actually entirely an accident.

For all we know the designs we encounter out in the world are incomplete, unintentional, or even placeholder. Not at all the high-polished, intentional works we imagine them to be.

There's a lot we can learn from the facade of something, but if we're hoping to better understand how to be more thoughtful and effective designers it's not enough to just look at what's on the forefront of any thing. Because what we see is only one small part of the story, and for all we know the process someone used for their work was flawed and what ended up working was a mistake.

Maybe it was a happy accident the creator themselves didn't realize they were making.