Karthi Subbaraman

Jan 29, 2022

First Principles Thinking

When it comes to First principle thinking, the popular names we hear ranges from Aristotle to Charlie Munger to Elon Musk.

In all honesty, every design thinker, every chef out there, ought to use first principles to solve problems. It is impossible to unleash creative possibilities otherwise.

For example, chefs use first principles at all times (whereas cooks don't). A chef understands the basic properties of ingredients and has innate understanding of how to combine them. A cook on the other hand follows a recipe and recreates what is already created with slight variations. A chef will never be stranded without a recipe. They invent new recipes from what is available. They play with combination of ingredients. They work based on elements and ratios.

The same analogy can be applied to design thinkers as well. A design thinker will never be stranded when the design systems or existing screens or research reports are not available. They reason from the grounds up.

Here are some characteristics of first principles thinking 👇

  • First principles thinking starts with questioning existing beliefs and conventions. The questions help to drill down the foundational truths of a problem. Once the truths are uncovered, the thinking shifts to more imaginative and creative solutions.

  • The basis of every creative problem solving exercise is deconstruction and reconstruction. A complicated problem is broken into basic elements. The solution is then reconstructed from the ground up. This is the only way problem solvers can move from linear to non-linear results.

  • Every first principle is a foundational proposition that stands alone (like an atom) and is pure. We cannot deduce it from any other proposition or assumption.

  • Reasoning by first principles removes the biases, assumptions and conventions. What remains is only essentials. It allows us to build our thinking from ground up. No wonder it is hard and hence very few do it.

  • It is human to rely on past assumptions or beliefs. It's quick and easy to do so. This way of thinking leads to unimaginative solutions which are variants of what is already existing.

  • Analogy helps with speed but reasoning from first principles helps with creativity.

  • When first principles form the foundations, the solution is sturdy. Elon Musk built both SpaceX (rockets) and Tesla (batteries) based on first principles. BuzzFeed's vitality is built on first principles.

  • When the principles at work are understood clearly, old assumptions fade away and decision can be made on the right methods to be used.

    Methods like Socratic Questioning, Descartes method of doubt and Five Why's are used to help with first principles thinking.

Karthi Subbaraman

Building Xperian. I write about product design, business design and life design.