Learning Curves for Design
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When businesspeople discuss growth, they often
refer to S-curves or “hockey sticks”—diagrams
depicting quantity changing over time, typically
units sold per month or quarter. Growth begins
slowly and gradually increases to an inflection
point; from there it accelerates. Eventually, growth
begins to slow and tapers off, for instance, as a market saturates or a system stabilizes at a new level.
S-curves may look backward (tracking progress,
adoption, or consumption) or forward (projecting
growth). In the early days of Google, cofounder
Sergey Brin began tracking search queries per day
and maintaining a graph, which grew to fill the
wall of a stairwell in the original Google building.
Nicholas Felton has a wonderful graph showing
the rates of adoption of various home appliances
and electronic devices [ 1]. Each curve is a successive wave of technology: flatter curves for early
technologies and steeper curves for more recent
ones, suggesting adoption rates have increased.
For startup companies, the dream is to catch
a technology or market just as the “hockey stick”
turns from blade to handle and ride the curve all
the way up—or at least to a successful IPO.
What do S-curves have to do with design?
S-curves can also represent learning. Through
study and practice, learning increases over time,
describing a learning curve. Learning curves
may represent a designer acquiring knowledge
and skills, starting slowly, picking up speed, and
leveling off as the designer reaches proficiency.
Likewise, learning curves may represent an organization growing or maturing.
Design comprises many domains (e.g., design
of environments, objects, and messages); in turn,
each domain comprises many skills (e.g., typography, grid-system development, and data visualization). The skills required to practice effectively
within even one design domain can change, particularly as means of production or communication
change (e.g., as personal computers became pervasive in the workplace) or as the context of practice
changes (e.g., as the Internet became a channel for
S-curves describe change over time, often units sold or
projected to be sold.
[ 1] Nicholas Felton
Diagram in “You Are
What You Spend,” New
York Times 10 February
2008. See: http://
providing services). From time to time, new design
domains also emerge (e.g., interaction design and
In a time of change, individual designers can
ensure that they remain competitive by regularly
reviewing the skills needed to practice in their chosen domains and by regularly assessing their proficiency in required skills. For example, have CSS
and Flash programming become required skills for
people beginning to practice interaction design?
What about experience with the Processing programming language or with the Arduino platform?
Likewise, organizations can ensure that they
remain competitive by regularly reviewing the
design domains that affect their ability to develop
new products. For example, are new skills needed
to stay competitive in existing design domains?
Have new design domains begun to emerge,
demanding new skills? Is there a risk of falling
behind? Are there opportunities to step ahead of
competitors—to differentiate the organization and