I was hanging out with some designer friends this weekend, and they were talking about doing a shared-world thing similar to what Marko is doing with the "Orken!" project. As I listened to them talk, it helped to crystallize some of my beliefs about design.
When you start a painting, you can literally make it any color. Let's assume you have a tight line drawing, so the forms are described, but based on the lighting scenario, it could be an almost infinite different tonal situations....but the MOMENT you put the first stroke down, the entire painting is essentially determined. Every stroke after that one should be laid down *in relation* to the strokes before it....is it warmer or cooler, brighter or darker, than the area next to it? Even if you don't know it at the time, 95% of the decision making is done with that first brush mark.
For me, design is very similar. When you're making up an imaginary civilization of people, the sky is literally the limit. You could base it on fantastic shapes, you could base it on historical people from Earth, you could base it on an animal, you could base it on an activity, like sailing or acrobatics. You could start from where they live. You could design based around their religion or cultural norms. BUT - From the moment you decide where you are starting, all the following "decisions" should flow in some way from that first one.
For example - I'm going to make a fantasy civilization of halflings based on the ancient Athenians. Ok...that means they live someplace relatively warm probably...or at least, they used to. Greek fashion came about because of the weather conditions of the Southern Mediterranean Sea. Similarly, their architecture. The warm, dry conditions indicate the kinds of plants in the area, which will dictate the kind of farming, and livestock that are kept. If you want to make an enemy civilization they are competing with, then that foreign power probably either shares some of these things, OR they are from VERY far away - which tells you things about their ability to travel. Every decision comes about in relation to the one before. It is either like something, or not like it. If it is NOT like the thing before, there is a reason for that, and that reason will impact other design factors.
None of this should stop you from fantastical, "cool" designs...but if you don't pay attention to it, chances are there's not going to be any sense of depth or authenticity to what you are creating. It's not about "story" in the sense of plot, but in the awareness that design decisions are made to solve problems, even in made-up scenarios. The most important question you can ask yourself after you decide on something is "Which means what?" If you keep asking yourself that, you've got a much better chance of creating something of real merit and with a sense of authenticity that will resonate with audiences and hopefully lead to long term success and staying power.
Thanks for reading!