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What do design systems and Adam Savage have in common?

June 14, 2024 | Russell S. Lebo

Engaging in passion projects is crucial for maintaining creativity, and occasionally, these projects offer valuable insights applicable to other domains. This was the recent case when I helped a friend revitalize an old woodworking shop in the Maryland woods. The experience provided profound insights into experience design, both as a practice and philosophy, and led me to deeply consider the concept of “first order retrievability.” While this idea is rooted in physical spaces, it offers significant insights for designing digital products and services. For creative directors and business managers, understanding and implementing first order retrievability can enhance user experience, streamline workflows, and boost productivity.

The Workshop

In 2023 and 2024 I worked with a friend to help him restore an old woodworking shop he had recently adopted. Filled with equipment, tools, and material that had once belonged to a Baltimore cabinet maker, the building had sat largely unused in the Baltimore countryside for a decade or more. 

Our task was to turn the building into a functional woodworking shop again. To do so we would create everything a typical shop needs: a lumber storage area, a workbench, tool storage, stationary machine area, and a finishing area. It would have ample space to move between the bench and walls, and to provide the necessary clearance to be able to use long, wide boards and panels. Most important of all, it would allow a person to dive deep into a task without losing concentration or inspiration by requiring them to constantly negotiate with the space itself.

Understanding First Order Retrievability

Adam Savage, renowned for “Mythbusters” and his expertise as a maker, introduces “first order retrievability,” a principle vital for any workspace. First order retrievability involves arranging tools, materials, and resources so they are immediately accessible and visible without moving other items. In Savage’s workspace, this means placing frequently used tools on pegboards, in clearly labeled drawers, or on open shelves for quick identification and retrieval. This setup minimizes workflow interruptions, maintains a tidy workspace, and ensures everything is ready for use without unnecessary delays.

While this idea is rooted in physical spaces like woodworking shops, it offers significant insights for designing digital products and services. For creative directors and business managers, understanding and implementing first order retrievability can enhance user experience, streamline workflows, and boost productivity.

Applying First Order Retrievability to Digital Products

In Savage’s meticulously organized shop, every tool has a designated place that’s easily reachable. Let’s draw parallels to digital product design:
Tool Placement: Just as a carpenter’s saw and hammer are placed within arm’s reach, the most critical functions in a piece of software are immediately visible on the main interface. For example, in design software like Adobe Photoshop, essential tools (brush, eraser, selection tool) are prominently displayed on the toolbar. Similarly, in a digital workspace like Slack, primary communication channels and tools are always accessible from the sidebar.
Labeling and Identification: Clear labeling is crucial in both physical and digital spaces. In woodworking, labels on drawers and bins prevent wasted time. Similarly, clear icons and labels in software interfaces guide users swiftly to their desired actions.
Efficiency and Flow: An organized shop supports a smooth workflow, reducing the friction caused by searching for tools. Digital products should mimic this efficiency, ensuring that users can maintain their flow without interruption. For instance, features like autosave and version history in document editing software like Google Docs help maintain productivity by reducing the risk of lost work and enabling easy access to previous versions.

French Cleats and Design Systems: A Similarity

A particularly illustrative example from Savage’s workshop is the use of French cleats. French cleats are a system of interlocking wall-mounted cleats that allow for flexible and secure tool storage. Tools can be easily hung, rearranged, and accessed as needed, all while maintaining a clean and organized space.

Similarly, in the digital world, a design system functions as the French cleat of UI/UX design. A design system is a comprehensive set of guidelines, components, and standards that ensures consistency and coherence across a digital product or suite of products. Here’s how they are analogous:
Modular and Flexible: Just as French cleats allow for the modular arrangement of tools, a design system provides a flexible framework that can be adapted and expanded. For example, Google’s Material Design is a design system that offers a cohesive set of design principles and components that can be used across various applications, ensuring a uniform user experience.
Consistency and Efficiency: Both French cleats and design systems enhance consistency and efficiency. In a workshop, tools are always stored in the same place, making them easy to find. In digital design, a consistent set of UI components ensures that users can intuitively navigate and interact with the product, reducing the learning curve and improving usability.
Ease of Maintenance: The ease with which French cleats allow for reorganization and maintenance is mirrored in the way design systems facilitate updates and scalability. When a new tool (or design component) is introduced, it can be seamlessly integrated into the existing system without disrupting the overall organization.


Adam Savage’s concept of first order retrievability is a powerful framework that extends beyond the physical realm into the digital world. By prioritizing accessibility, visibility, and organization, creative directors and business managers can design digital products and services that enhance user experience and efficiency. Just as a well-organized woodworking shop promotes productivity and creativity, a digital workspace designed with first order retrievability in mind can significantly improve how users interact with and benefit from technology. The similarity between French cleats and design systems further underscores the importance of modularity, consistency, and ease of maintenance in creating efficient and user-friendly environments. In a competitive market, this approach not only meets but anticipates user needs, setting the stage for more intuitive, effective, and satisfying digital experiences.