A successful design accounts for the structure of the problem it is aimed at solving. When it is a human-directed design, this includes the expectations of its users. How do we arrive at such a design? One approach starts from first principles (e.g., simplicity, unity, symmetry, balance) to evaluate the quality of proposed designs. Here, we introduce design from zeroth principles, a form of human-in-the-loop computation that synthesizes a design that conforms to its users’ expectations. The technique begins by constructing a transmission chain seeded with a random design. Each user in the chain is exposed to the design and then recreates it, passing along their recreation to the next user, who does the same. Through this iterative process, the users’ perceptual, inductive, and reconstructive biases directly transform the initial design into one that is better fit to human cognition. Such designs are easier to learn and harder to forget. We evaluated the approach in three domains: stimulus–response mappings, vanity phone numbers, and letter placement in typeset words—and show that it produces a good design in each.