Design Hacking by Scott Burnham

Design hacking is the resourcefulness of the individual stepping in when the products and systems we are offered fall short.

Design hacking creates new realities, options and possibilities from those we are given, whether commercial, social or civic.

It is a democratization of design, enabling the user to be part of the design process and not only on the receiving end of it. There is a triumphant message of individual resourcefulness and direct engagement when a hacker sensibility is applied.

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“Exceedingly well written and comprehensive.”
– Core77

Design hacking methodologies and philosophies hold profound benefits:

  • Hacking creates new engagements between the product and the consumer
  • Hacking mandates relevance and necessity in design
  • Hacking is resourceful
  • Hacking creates abundance from limited resources
  • Hacking finds the truth in systems
  • Hacking gives people a voice.

As I write in the text:

Hacking creates new realities, options and possibilities from those we are given, whether commercial, social or civic. It offers forth the notion of a democratization of design, by enabling the end user to be part of the process and not only on the receiving end of it. There is a triumphant message of individual resourcefulness and direct engagement when a hacker sensibility is applied.

Most of all, hacking is evidence of our fundamental self-reliance in spite of professionalism, bureaucracy and industrial supply. In many ways, it is a return to, or a rediscovery of, the skills which saw us through our pre-consumerist times, when ‘making do’ with what you had to hand required inventiveness. To relegate such activity to the realms of ‘amateurism’ is a dangerous dismissal, for it not only further deepens the ‘us and them’ disconnect between design and society, but ignores the vast potential of the creative energies at work outside established channels.

Design Hacking Interview with Volume Magazine

A few years ago Volume Magazine interviewed me about design hacking. I’m including the interview below for those who want to know more.

Interview with Scott Burnham
Volume Magazine

What’s your definition of hacking?

SB: Hacking is the manifestation of both a resourcefulness and curiosity to explore and exceed the limitations of a product or system. It repositions the individual from being simply the end user of something to an active participant in its lifecycle. Hacking finds truth in systems; it reveals shortcomings and dysfunctional elements and holds them under a bright light. It’s more about improvement than resistance.

How does the culture of contemporary design hacking compare to the original culture of hacking?

SB: Since the 1960’s, there has been a seismic shift in our relationship with media and culture, and our relationship with design has become a physical manifestation of this change. Today, culture has become a malleable resource. Historically, cultural products (photos, music and videos) have been the end result of a professional creative process. To create an alternate version or a remix of a work was a significant undertaking requiring tools that were not readily available to the general public. Now you can re-edit an entire film or album in one afternoon sitting on your bed with a laptop. This ease of manipulation of culture has given us a sense of permission in a way and has allowed us to also alter the physical items surrounding us, at times even as a leisure pursuit. There might be similarities with the ’60’s, but the motivators are different; there isn’t an overt political or countercultural drive behind hacking today. Yet, hacking today is all about culture and exploration, dynamism and exploring instability in an increasingly controlled and restrictive world.

Are there vestiges of the 1960’s ideals of DIY or networking in design hacking or open source communities today?

SB: The 1960s tenets of connection and network are represented in the current hacking ethos of community. Websites like and can be seen as contemporary versions of DIY, back-to-the-land books, Whole Earth catalogue, etc. The network provides a kind of dialogue. There are strong links between the open source community and design hacking, in their ideological underpinnings and in their communication strategies.

Unlike hacking, design is almost defined by authorship. How does design hacking, then, reconcile these two disparate measures of success?

SB: I think we are in a bit of a honeymoon period in terms of the relationship between author and end user. It’s going to be fascinating to watch this play out.

Productivity (more specifically, the act of producing) is certainly central to designing, but has not always been fundamental to hacking. Is production a rubric for success in hacking or designing or both?

SB: The fact that hacking’s original definition (from the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club) was to spend time on “a project without a constructive end” is one of the most beautiful elements of the entire genre. This principle remains at the heart of hacking, and productivity is a natural progression. Experimentation is creativity in action. The process and exploration of what can be hacked is the cake; generating a “product” is just icing on the cake.

Since the 1960’s, computers have become ubiquitous, and at the same time less ‘hack-able’. How did hacking shape our present understanding of computers as both consumer products and flexible systems?

SB: Without the role of hackers at the beginnings of personal computing, our computing culture wouldn’t be nearly as advanced as it is today. Some of the greatest leaps forward are owed to hacking culture, open source software being the most obvious manifestation of this. But it’s not always so direct a lineage. When the original Apple computer was released, it came with a full schematic allowing you to tweak, hack, fix and augment it however you wanted. Many cite their first Apple as the beginning of their technology career because of this ability to get personally involved in computing at a tactile level. Yet, the iPad won’t let you install a piece of software that is not controlled by Apple, to say nothing of being able to open it to even change the battery. I wonder if we are killing the next generation of technologists by locking down the computing experience in this way.

What is hacking’s relationship to stability? Is hacking merely disruption, or is there a larger value at play?

SB: One of hacking’s most powerful characteristics is the ability to reveal weaknesses or imbalances. Ironically, the systems most often exposed for their flaws are those designed to create efficiency or impose control. There is a didactic undercurrent in hacking that exposes the dehumanization of services in society. There is an absolute need for Instability as a counterbalance to the attempt to create flawless structures. Instability also breeds experimentation. When you open up and tinker, you study the system and learn from what was there before, then venture in your own direction. You make mistakes. You screw up. You break it. Several times. But then you fix it to be the way you always wanted it. To rework the classic Beckett quote, “break it again – break it better”. And that’s when things get good.

Does the advent of nanotechnology, and the potential to create and customize resources ad infinitum, eliminate the need for hacking or change its substance?

SB: From a hacking perspective nanotechnology becomes something of a limitless offering, but at the same time takes the interaction too far “upstream” for it to really count as hacking. Nanotechnology, by enabling design at an almost molecular level, allows root access to the design, and gives the user full control of its properties. So nanotechnology is perhaps the ultimate hack, but you’re not hacking a system if you can start over from scratch each time. With nanotechnology, not everyone is a hacker, but maybe everyone is a designer.

Are all hackers designers? How can hacking provide a new model for design practice?

SB: Not all designers are hackers. That said, a growing number employ the hacking ethos in their design process where pieces, components or whole products are taken as the starting point or underlay for further design engagements. Ease of future manipulation is also beginning to emerge as design considerations. Lately, I have been coming across design objects that, to use a technology term, have obvious ‘backdoors’ embedded within them for easy access to take the work further.

You both speak of hacks as either in the realm of hardware (objects) or software (production systems). Is there space between or outside these two classifications?

SB: Software hacks also extend into socio-economic domains. The Yes Men are master hackers, finding access points and vulnerabilities in corporate communication channels in order to issue fake press statements, which create instability. All that is needed is access points, and more appear every day, despite the efforts to the contrary.

What is the role of the design hacker as design becomes increasingly localized and dispersed?

SB: Instead of being primarily product-focused, the infusion of a design hacking ethos into the design world makes design become more of a catalyst, a framework of ideas for future manifestation. Design then becomes a platform for ongoing creativity, not an end product of it. When production design decisions are made at the local level, the ideology of hacking extends to the entire production system.

Hacking is more stakeholder than shareholder; market considerations and the commercial impact of the work are secondary. So rather than asking “will this provide value to the shareholder”, the question is “does this provide value to the stakeholder?” There is a very thin line between hacking and innovation, and frequently the line disappears. It is almost always the hacker that discovers the weakness in a network or piece of software, or discovers a point of access that will expand the capability of the technology. By revealing the dysfunctional, broken or vulnerable aspects of a system, the controllers of the system are made aware of it and can respond accordingly; this is how the system evolves. The technological advances in most communication technologies, from phones to the Internet, are born on the back of discoveries and developments made by hackers. Design should work no differently.