The 1977 documentary Powers of Ten by designers Ray and Charles Eames is one of the most famous short films ever made.
The movie starts at a lakeside picnic. The camera viewpoint is directly overhead and shows a scene one meter wide. The camera zooms out. Every 10 seconds, it reveals a greater view, each one power of 10 wider than the last. First we see the park, then the lake, then the city, the state, the country, and the planet, and so on, until our galaxy is just a speck of light.
Then the camera zooms back in at the same pace. With the picnic back in view, the camera focuses on one of the picnicker’s hands and begins to zoom closer, into the skin texture and structure, individual cells, and so on. Now, every 10 seconds, what you see is magnified by a negative power of 10. Before you know it, you’re seeing inside a proton. That’s where the journey ends.
This little movie had a big impact on how science is shared. By moving between the tiny details of molecular biology to the enormous expanses of astrophysics, the film reveals interconnections across scientific fields. Comprehending scale, or as the Eameses liked to call it, “the effect of adding another zero,” helps connect these hidden dots, making us better designers—and citizens.
Eames Demetrios, grandson of Ray and Charles, believes scale is a timeless method for navigating ambiguity: “Many of the challenges we are facing today are a combination of things very big with opportunities and threats and things very small that have opportunities and threats.” And you can’t really navigate these big opportunities unless you understand the basics: What are you dealing with? How big is it? What is its relationship to other things? Whether it’s a weird object you picked up in the attic or an abstract concept you can’t let go of, “having a sense of scale,” Demetrios says, “gives you tools for a new kind of understanding.”
Get into the details and knowns.
When you’re shrouded in uncertainty, naming what you do know can get you started on making sense of a thing. Designers do product breakdowns to get a closer look at the guts of an object. Doctors take X-rays to look at the hard inner structures of the body and MRIs and PET scans to see soft tissue with more detail. Project managers use to-do lists, timetables, and calendars.
When you don’t know how something works, take it apart (metaphorically or literally) and look at it closely. Ground yourself in what you know about the challenge. This can help you make connections that aren’t already in your head—and create the room to explore.
Keep it human-centered.
There’s a reason Powers of Ten starts at the scale of humans. Connecting to the needs that you want to satisfy keeps you laser-focused on the “why” behind your work. A strong point-of-view statement can be a tool for crisply defining what you’re trying to navigate, who it’s for, and why it matters. It can sustain motivation when you feel like you’re spinning your wheels or getting stuck in the trenches. By zooming in and looking at a problem through the lens of a specific person, your work becomes more focused.
Stick to constraints.
We deal with constraints all the time. Your kid refuses to eat carrots, you have to use a certain software, there’s a deadly pandemic outside and you can’t leave the house— whether known or unforeseen, constraints can feel like roadblocks. But they’re often the most powerful force behind getting us to come up with creative solutions. Your greatest ideas might emerge when you have to improvise within a theme, sneakily substituting parsnips for carrots. Time, materials, budgets, space, human resources—all of these can be hugely valuable constraints. If you find yourself stuck for how to get started, return to the knowns and see if that sparks your next move.
Fall back on rules.
Once you’ve staked out some “knowns,” you can feel safe to explore. Define what you need, and commit to it. On a team, sharing individual needs and outlining a common agreement on how you’ll work creates a framework that can become a safety net when you’re feeling unsure. For example, what times are sacred meeting times? Who is in charge of what? How will you deal with conflict? What are your communication norms?
In 1971, Edgar Mitchell was a lunar module pilot aboard NASA’s Apollo 14 mission. Mitchell was responsible for the lunar module itself as well as science on the moon (which is about 1^8 meters from Earth, for those still counting). With his jobs complete, he had a minute to kick back, so to speak, on the return trip to Earth. And like anyone on a bus or in a plane or on a ship, he looked out the window. Mitchell saw the Earth—blue, bright, with a thin shell of atmosphere surrounding it—floating in inky darkness. “In outer space, you develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it,” Mitchell said.
This sensation is called the “overview effect,” a term coined by the philosopher Frank White. “Anyone living in a space settlement . . . will always have an overview,” White observed. “They will see things that we know, but that we don’t experience, which is that the Earth is one system. We’re all part of that system, and there is a certain unity and coherence to it all.”
Another NASA astronaut, Ron Garan, has focused his career on spreading the word about the overview effect. He believes that what he terms an “orbital perspective” can have “profound, positive effects on the trajectory of our global society and our world.” His new mission is to “communicate the transformative power of acquiring a big picture and long-term perspective of our planet.”
Designers recognize—and are energized by—the reality that everything is connected. When you’re creating a new idea, it helps to move fluidly between concrete details and more abstract systems. Activities like populating a stakeholder map or visualizing the connections in a system help you zoom out to understand the full landscape of implications.
From Buckminster Fuller to Carl Sagan, people have found inspiration and insight in the concept of zooming out. When we step back and look at the big picture, we gain an intangible understanding of how things work and connect. We need to take that time to step back, reflect, and look at our world as a tiny speck. Seeing something from afar helps us understand it.
Reprinted with permission from Navigating Ambiguity: Creating Opportunity in a World of Unknowns by Andrea Small and Kelly Schmutte and the Stanford d.school, copyright © 2022. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Andrea Small is design leader, strategist, and educator. Currently she teaches at the d.school and leads storytelling and design strategy for Samsung Research America’s R&D Innovation team. Andrea has worked with some of the world’s most iconic brands, including Nike, Facebook, Starbucks, and Herman Miller.
Kelly Schmutte is a designer, educator, and entrepreneur. At the d.school, she designs learning experiences with lasting impact, reimagining the future of higher education, creating life tools for high schoolers, and building out the Navigating Ambiguity curriculum. Kelly teaches core d.school classes alongside d.school founder David Kelley.