Adaptive Design

designs without strict instruction



"Adaptive design runs rampant. It is vital, creative, and messy." -Moran

In the world of design, there is one form which is currently on the rise, that being adaptive design. One notes that "adaptive design" is one of the three forms of design as outlined by Tom Moran, the remaining pair being "professional design" and "generic design". Read this powerpoint link for more on the latter two:


When it comes to adaptive design, "[t]he essence [...] is the difference between thinking about User vs. Adapter. The User assumes the system is ready for a purpose, and merely puts that into action; hence the usability is the designer's problem. The Adapter makes the system suitable for a purpose, thus usefulness is the adapter's problem; they make the system their own." (Tom Moran)
(read more:


Adaptive designs are ones which the user can find a multitude of purposes for. While a toaster serves only one purpose, an item such as a Wiki can involve adaptive design as it is able to be re purposed for any one of a whole list of uses, whether it be to post a syllabus or post research documents regarding the beginning of life itself. Adaptive design also involves a continuous state of revision and evolution, a characteristic especially found in every day systems and items. One could even suggest that a room (in the traditional sense, i.e. a room in a building) is adaptive in it's design, as that space can be used for an infinite count of purposes, and can include an infinite count of object arrangements and layouts.

Tom Moran

Tom Moran is a specialist in the study of adaptive design. Moran is currently working with IBM Almaden Research Center in California as a distinguished engineer, and has made many accomplishments in not only his profession, but research as well: click here to view these. Tom Moran also has an entourage of students who he supervises and advises, with the list of whom Moran keeps listed online.

Moran says that a "useful separation of mindsets" is how we can differentiate Adaptive Design from Professional Design, the list of which is as follows:
  • formal vs. informal
  • anticipated vs. situated
  • ill-defined vs. concrete
  • reflect vs. act
  • specify vs. build
  • program vs. arrange
  • adventurous vs. conservative
  • make it right vs. make do

With regards to adaptive design, Tom Moran says that the design community can...
  • Dismiss it as vulgar
  • Try to clean it up
  • Embrace it
  • Design to support it and improve it


Other definitions of adaptive design point towards a system which is self-adapting. This often refers to the programming design of adaptive computing. The science of this programming form can be read about in the encyclopedia of ISCID. Click here


** Tom Moran: "Everyday Adaptive Design"