What Designers Can Learn From Hackers

Foreword: I first became fascinated with the ways white hat hackers took things apart to solve problems after joining an awesome local hackerspace called Collexion. I have them to thank for seeing the inspiring overlap of design and hacking (and for helping me to write this article).

The (virtuous) Hacker Ethic

What is the Hacker Ethic? In 1984, Stephen Levy wrote a book which describes six general tenets of a shared philosophy observed by (ethical) hackers. Each tenet applies in illuminating ways to the design process.

1. Hands-on imperative

When computing power was scarce (read: behind locked doors), hackers would go to any lengths (e.g. picking locks) to get hands-on time with the latest in technology. They risked everything to gain hands-on time in order to make things and experiment. How does this apply to design? Today our scarcity isn’t tools, it’s time. If paying work hinders your learning new technologies and methods, then do personal projects. Ultimately design is not a spectator sport, it’s hands-on!

2. “Information wants to be free”

Your experiences and talents are uniquely yours, but ultimately worthless without execution. Yet chasing every idea can get nothing done. Get into the habit of getting all of your ideas down. This habit both helps you to remember moments of brilliance and to generate new ideas. The best ideas will nag you (for months, even years) until you grant their freedom.

3. Mistrust authority


You should not blindly follow (nor reject) prevailing conventions, rules, or trends. Hackers value facts over fancy, and can explain their reason for solving a problem in a particular way. In design, you may have encountered the boss that wants the buttons to be red because it’s the hotness. When the authority demands more cowbell, should you yield? It is easy to say “no” on principal but why not take the hackerly approach and test the assertion. If testing is not practical, be armed with facts and information to defeat the request. Learn to mistrust authority, even your own.

4. No bogus criteria


True hackers judge one another on their hacking, not bogus criteria like degrees, race, age, sex, or position.

We all know the designer who cites a design degree, a lucrative job, or an advanced experience level as the reason they are more of an authority than you are. Often the same designers produce little and/or terrible work. But what’s important? To a hacker, not these criteria—the important thing is the work you do. All else is bogus.

5. “You can create truth and beauty on a computer”


A computer alone does not make a great designer just as a powerful calculator doesn’t make a great mathematician. Ultimately, it’s about idea and execution. But do not be numb to or biased against new technologies as they represent fresh canvases and stages for your ideas.

6. “Computers can change your life for the better”


Computers clearly have impacted the way we design with new tools and expanded marketplaces. However, a frequently underexploited channel for designers to thrive is through social media. Designer-focused social media (e.g. Dribbble, Behance, Forrst etc.) are drastically changing the business of design.


We have looked at some of the ways the methods and ethics of hacking can inform your design. But (in the hackerly advice of Levar Burton), “don’t take my word for it”—get hands-on by checking out your local hackerspace!

Sam Wilson is a creative strategist and epicsmallist. He likes to grow and talk about ideas. Say hello to him on twitter at @storypixel.


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