Kill Your Darlings

28th August 2023
5 min read

Kill you darlings.

Stephen King is famous for saying it, however the original source is attributed to a chap called Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who wrote in his 1916 published lecture On the Art of Writing:

If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

It's an often used term in writing. What it means is to take that clever little bit of wit, that sentence, or that idea that you keep hanging onto, and delete it.

(As a side note, Quiller-Couch's usage of the word delete would have meant something a bit different in 1916.)

Anyone who has done any amount of writing will know it too well. We think we're being clever with a little turn of phrase or reference. We keep pushing the sentence around to make it fit. Rewriting everything around it to make it hit just how we want it to. But it never really clicks.

To murder you darlings, as Quiller-Couch put it, is to liberate yourself from that piece of writing that is actually preventing the rest of your writing from evolving freely and holistically.

What does this have to do with design?

Well this applies just as equally to design.

As designers I have no doubt we're all guilty of something similar. We have some part of our design that we think is the cleverest thing we've ever come up with.

This could manifest in any number of ways. It could be a specific detail. Some specific colour or material, or finish. It could be that surfacing texture that is so hot right now. It could also be something far more abstract. Like a particular style or aesthetic that conforms to the latest trend, or rallies against it.

The truth is it's holding your design back.

Perhaps that particular idea made sense when you first started out several iterations ago. But by continuing to adhere to that darling, is to hold back the rest of the design from evolving into something better.

To kill your darlings is to allow every part of the design to evolve and improve without burden. It can unlock new avenues for exploration in the whole design because it no longer needs to accommodate that one idea you're attached to.

Think of your design as a sphere.

The sphere represents all the ideas and constraints that make up the design. As you explore the design, the sphere expands. It 'adds mass' as more ideas and avenues for exploration are added to it.

As you define and refine the design, the sphere contracts. The sphere 'sheds mass' by eliminating concepts that are no longer relevant, do not advance the design, or are just unfavourable for better concepts. (The sphere also gets denser as it contracts. The concepts become more defined and structured. But that doesn't add to the analogy.)

Now picture you have one or two darlings that the sphere has stuck to while expanding and contracting. Your sphere becomes misshapen as it expands, preventing you from exploring certain avenues. And it remains misshapen as it contracts.

So what's the solution?

Here's 5 steps (largely in order of importance) you can take before and during your concept development to prevent your darlings from forming. Or to kill them if they do.

1. Drop the ego.

We all want to be seen as witty or clever. We want to own that little part of the design that everyone fawns over. The bit that design circles will call visionary, or sublime. The truth is that those superlatives are earned by being selfless, not selfish. Dropping the ego will allow you to be receptive to new ideas that will make the design better.

2. Justify your design.

Evaluate your design and try to justify why each part of it exists. It should have strong justification for inclusion. Ask yourself why things are the way they are. If your answers are 'because it makes this statement', or 'because I like it'. You've found a darling that might need killing. Every aspect of your design should stand up to scrutiny. Including by people who don't care about your feelings.

3. Get feedback.

Unless you design in a vacuum, your design will exist for something or someone other than yourself. It's well know in Industrial Design that we design for our users. Test your ideas early and often with the people that actually matter (ie, not you). If users don't like your darling, or other aspects of the design become suboptimal because of it, kill it immediately.

4. Look for redundancy.

Are there features you really like that don't serve to advance the design? Go back and look at the product requirements and test the design against them. As before, each aspect of the design should have robust justification for its existence. Review any redundancies you may have. Parts of the design that serve no purpose. If your darling does nothing but stroke your ego, kill it.

5. Combine features.

Are there features in your design performing duplicate functionality? Can you simplify the design if you look at the features your stuck on from a new angle? If your darling is constraining your design to take a particular shape, at the cost of something simpler and more elegant, kill it.

A word of warning.

Don't be too judgey too early.

When ideating, you don't want to be limiting your concept development to those darlings you're so attached to. You also don't want to kill them too soon.

There is always some kernel of value in any idea, that's why you're attached to it. It is entirely acceptable to allow them to remain as part of that expanding sphere as you explore the design. Just don't fixate on it. Allow the concepts to move on from those things you're attached to.

However, when it comes time to define and refine the concept, you must the ruthless. Turn your critical thinking inwards and identify your limiting ideas. It's not easy, but once you get over Step 1 it becomes much easier.

It is also worth pointing out that if your darling can withstand the 5-step battery above. Then keep it. It won't be just your darling. It will be everybody's.

I'm going to do my best to get a post out every week on the topics of design, medtech, and my journey in it. If you'd like to follow along, feel free to either subscribe to the newsletter or give me a follow on LinkedIn.

ⓒ Lincoln Black 2024

Get some free design thinking, fresh every week. Straight to your inbox.

I respect your privacy and will only send you the fresh design thinking you've asked for.


Virtimachi Pty Ltd

ABN 31 651 760 762

PO Box 7156 Kariong

NSW 2250 Australia