Published on May 11, 2011

This post was previously on the Pathfinder Software site. Pathfinder Software changed its name to Orthogonal in 2016. Read more.

Most design thinking can be thought of as either Top Down or Bottom Up. But what’s the difference? Why is each important? And what are the strengths and weaknesses of each approach?

Top Down thinking is goal driven. For example, if you were designing a house, a Top Down approach would be to consider the number of rooms, the type of rooms and the overall style. Top Down thinking deals with solving the critical side of the design problem in an organized way.

By contrast, Bottom Up thinking is more emotion driven. In our house example, a Bottom Up approach would be to list out all the cool things you would want in your house, like a screen porch and a fireplace.

Both types of thinking are important to creating good designs. This can be appreciated by considering using one approach without the other to balance it. Pure Bottom Up thinking can result in missed deadlines, blown budgets and getting stuck on ideas that are not important in the overall scheme because everything is driven by emotion. On the other hand, pure Top Down thinking can result in a lifeless design that lacks impact and that nobody gets excited about.

It’s important for any project to balance both approaches. To do so, it’s often useful to engage in one form of thinking at a time. For example, a brainstorm session should be done Bottom Up, where the emotional ideas can flow freely. A Minimum Viable Product (MVP), though, will need Top Down thinking to get to a minimum set of features that can satisfy the target goal.

To deliver designs that are both strategic and have an impact, use both Top Down and Bottom Up thinking.