They say the web is decaying all the time and it’s true. When sites redesign they break hundreds or thousands of previously working links. I discovered this fun interview from 2008 by Sara Peyton at O’Reilly Media had disappeared.
I recovered it thanks to the Web archive and reposted it here. It’s based on the Proust questionnaire, a parlor game by the eponymous author. You should give it a try.
12 years is a long time and I need to reconsider my answers to some of these questions, but for now I’ll stand with them as they are. ———————————— Scott Berkun Answers Proust’s Questions By Sara Peyton, June 2008
An evening spent drunk as a loon, looking up at stars, sitting by a bonfire, laughing with friends.
What is your greatest fear?
Waiting to die with a mind full of regrets.
On what occasion do you lie?
This is the first lie I’ve ever told.
What is your favorite journey?
Wherever I’m going next that I haven’t been to before.
Which living person do you most despise?
It’s a tie between Bill O’Reilly and Dick Cheney.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
My friends would say its mother*****r. But I don’t think this word can be overused.
Which talent would you most like to have?
Mind-reading is hard to beat, but I’d settle for time-travel.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
The willingness to let myself make more mistakes.
If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
Open their eyes.
If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what would it be?
If a thing, the most perfect object in NYC: The Chrysler Building. Or maybe Central Park (is it cheating to call that one thing? I like to cheat). If a person, I’d like to be me again.
What do your consider your greatest achievement?
Writing every day. Ok, that’s a lie. I don’t write every day. But just trying to write every day is hard enough.
What is your most treasured possession?
My mind. I dont care much for material things. Besides, you never have to worry about someone breaking into your mansion and stealing your mind, you know? It’s the only thing than will always be only yours.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Watching someone innocent suffer for your own carelessness.
What is the quality you most like in a man?
What is the quality you most admire in a woman?
Curves. What do you most value in your friends?
Brutal honesty, dark comedy, and trust under fire.
Who are your favorite writers?
George Orwell, Henry Miller, George Saunders, Raymond Carver, Bertrand Russell, Peter Drucker, Loren Eisley, John Gardner, Ray Bradbury, Hubert Selby Jr.
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
How can you top Don Quixote? There’s no way.
Who are your heroes in real life?
Don Quixote isn’t real? Are you sure?
How would you like to die?
Drunk as a loon, looking up at stars, sitting by a bonfire, laughing with friends.
This deal will last through Friday. The book makes a great gift for anyone curious about design, or who you wish understood how good design actually happens. It’s full of great stories and written for just about anyone.
A great innovation in business tech was announced on Sept. 16th in 1959 – The Xerox 914. It is one of the great breakthroughs in office technology and product design.
It was the first copy machine that resembles the ones we know and the inventions inside it led to the laser printers we use today. It’s hallmark was simplicity: unlike it’s complex competitors, you simply placed your paper on glass and pressed a button. How Chester Carlson invented it is a great story of risk and persistence and a better one to learn from than most.
Carlson worked at Bell Labs in the 1930s in the patent department. He had 100s of ideas for different inventions, but focused on copying because typing with carbon paper was messy and frustrating (You had to place a sheet of the carbon paper between two sheets of regular paper, and writing or typing would be copied to the second sheet). His patent department made hundreds of copies and he found the process frustrating. The “cc:” line in email applications today is a reference to the manual process of making a carbon copy,.
Carlson was fired in 1933 (Great Depression). By 1936 he had a new job and went to night school to study law. Too poor to buy books, he had to hand copy them from the library! Copying was his nemesis. To relax he read books on science, and there he learned about Pál Selényi’s work on electrostatic images and he saw a way for his idea to become real.
He did chemical experiments in his own home, to the annoyance of his family and neighbors. He made unavoidably smelly compounds, melting sulfur (!) over zinc plates in the kitchen smelling like rotten eggs, once even starting a fire. By 1938 his wife told him he had to do his work elsewhere..
Using Selényi’s ideas (roughly: use light to remove static charge, not create it) and his own, after many experiments he had a ‘breakthrough’ in 1938. But unlike the myth of epiphany, he realized that moment depended on many others:
“Things don’t come to mind readily, all of a sudden, like pulling things out of the air”
This is the first xerox copy in history.
He soon had a patent but more rough times were ahead. Between 1939 and 1944 he was turned down by 20 companies, including IBM and the U.S. Navy.
He and his wife Elsa von Mallon soon divorced. He described the marriage as “an unhappy period interspersed with sporadic escapes.” Perhaps those kitchen fires and terrible smells made him a hard man to live with.
Carlson continued to work in patents at the P. R. Mallory Company. One day he was able to demo his work to an engineer from Battelle, who was only there his employer’s office to testify for a patent case. Battelle never took in outside ideas but were impressed and offered financial support. It only took 20 YEARS, but he finally had support for his idea.
In 1946 they signed a deal with Haloid (later to be renamed Xerox), a competitor to Kodak. In 1948 they released the Xerox Model A Copier. It took 39 steps to make a single copy.
Another decade of development led to the Xerox 914 – named because it could copy paper up to 9″ x 14″. This model become popular quickly because it:
was simple to use
didn’t damage originals
could be rented
used regular paper
It took almost 30 years but Carlson’s dream was finally real. At the push of a button you could make a perfect copy.
As innovative as it was, as with most new tech it had some problems.
It tended to overheat (one demo model caught on fire on launch day), often enough that it came with a “scorch eliminator” – a sales friendly term for fire extinguisher. Ralph Nader’s machine caught fire 3 times in 4 months and he complained to the press about it.
unreliable, as paper jams (‘mispuff’) happened often
The machines often required a small team of people who maintained them and managed taking in copy requests and delivering them (the copy room). But relative to competitors it was a breakthrough in many ways and these issues were improved over time.
The story of Xerox and Carlson is a great example to learn from – it doesn’t suffer from any of the Myths of Innovation. The time from having an idea to making it a real product in the marketplace took decades, which is more often the case than most people realize.
His patents made him wealthy enough to retire. He gave most of his fortune away, anonymously, including support for Buddhism, NYCLU and the NAACP. He died in 1968.
A new hero for me is Chuck Harrison, one of the first black designers, and executives (1961), in American corporate history. He spent much of his career at Sears, and designed 100s of well known objects, some of which you probably know. He redesigned the View-master from a bland, clumsy device, to become something kids and adults loved to hold and use.
He developed the idea to make garbage cans out of plastic (much quieter than metal when the garbagemen emptied them at 5am), and make them stackable so they’re easy to ship and store.
To convince people his design was better, he devised a test. “we froze the can at -40 degrees for days, put a 50lb bag of sand in it, and threw it off a 5 story building.” It didn’t break – It bounced! Marketing replicated this in their advertising – but from a helicopter.
He thought carefully about user experience and affordances – “easy for the owner to remove [the lid] but hard for dogs or raccoons” – plus a sloped lid for rain runoff and hand grips at the bottom. Ideas used in Sears’ advertising.
He grew up in Arizona in the 1940s, which he says “may have been more racist Mississippi” – and poverty was an issue too – his high school basketball team was so poor they didn’t have uniforms – his coach wrote player numbers on t-shirts.
He struggled entering college because of dyslexia. He studied econ. until a councilor suggested art. His grades improved & he considered interior/industrial design. He was told “he’d be a good painter” but quipped “if I told my father that he’d make me paint the garage.”
He went to @SAIC_Design (Art Institute of Chicago) as the only black student. “…in the arts, racism seemed less intense… sharing information didn’t represent power so classmates were helpful” He learned from supportive professional designers too. Here are some sketches for one of his student projects, a design for a playground.
He served in the army, learning cartography/mapmaking and photography. After two years he reached out to his professors about graduate school, but they didn’t have a program – they created one for him.
Henry Glass (professor) helped him early in his career. “Henry was a godsend… someone looking over my shoulder… I learned it wasn’t only expressing a concept, but how to successfully get it to the marketplace” – This holistic design view would be a hallmark of his work. Much like Dieter Ram’s 10 principles, Harrison had a clear and honest philosophy about how things should be designed.
“If I were to share one thought with the #design community of today and tomorrow it would be to remember that your purpose your gift to the world is to provide straightforward solutions to real problems for living, breathing human beings.” – Charles Harrison
That word, system, is one that designers know well. It means rather than being able to address a problem as a singular thing, there are instead multiple forces that interact, often in ways that are more complex than they seem. Just because a problem is easy to spot, doesn’t mean it’s easy to fix. Systems theory is its own subject, as are police history and police reform, but I haven’t seen them brought together in a simple way that most people can grasp.
Shaila Dewan, who covers criminal justice for The NY Times, explored this in her rundown on The Daily podcast of 5 of the systemic reasons (there are more) for why the police stay protected even when they violate our trust. She explained:
“Our systems are set up to protect police officers from repercussions… its even been bitterly complained about by police chiefs coming in wanting to change their departments… Minneapolis had two police chiefs who were heralded as reformers. The current chief sued the department for racist hiring practices before he became chief… but he may be forced to rehire [the four officers involved in the George floyd killing] “
This view helps explain the Gordian Knot of how police, unions and other organizations, resist change and protect each other. It’s far from complete, but it offers an introduction into why this has been a hard problem to solve.
The police police the police. It’s commonly known that most departments have Internal Affairs divisions that investigate police issues (often romanticized in movies), but we forget that they often report into the same larger organization that ultimately manages the people being investigated and who have incentive to bury or minimize bad news about their department. Internal affairs typically only investigates and makes recommendations, via methods that are often kept from the public. They are usually former police officers who are part of the same culture and community as those they are investigating. As citizens we call the police as a (hopefully) objective actor but the police are not policed in the same way. Police records about individual officers, complaints and discipline history, are often hard to obtain and provide limited information to the public.
Courts and arbitration protect police officers. Public employees can appeal firings or suspensions to an independent group or mediator outside of the police department. Through these appeals police are often given lighter sentences or are reinstated, since they often base judgements on past precedent of leniency (which self-reinforces light penalties). The Twin Cities Pioneer Press analysis showed fired cops were reinstated 46% of the time.
Civilian review boards rarely have power. Review boards are often created in response to police brutality, but they are often toothless, relying on journalists and the media to apply pressure. They are granted meetings with police leaders to discuss issues or review cases but not much more. Often few complaints brought to these boards result in any action.
Police unions are very powerful. Unions represent the needs of officers, not the needs of the police department or society. They are well funded compared to other unions (given the political nature of policing) giving them significant negotiating power with city governments. A primary duty of unions is to protect police jobs. “They are often the biggest opponent of reform minded chiefs. Minneapolis is a textbook example of this.” Minneapolis Police Union President Bob Krul, whose own words on violence are disturbing, has 29 complaints against him as an officer. He has stated he will get the jobs back for the officers involved in the George Floyd killing.
Reasonable Fear laws reduce sentences. Prosecutors and juries, who depending on their ethnicity and neighborhood have had far different experiences with the police, are often willing to give officers the benefit of the doubt in use of force since they are viewed as public servants, taking risks for the greater good. The concept of reasonable fear laws is that officers have dangerous jobs with split second decisions: If an officer can make the argument that a reasonable officer would have been afraid for their life in that situation, than a jury or prosecutor is not supposed to convict or judge harshly.
In systems theory stasis is the tendency for systems to be resilient to change. Each part of a functioning (in the sense it achieves outcomes the people in it desire) system will naturally adapt to keep the system stable and even compensate for changes, neutralizing them.
This helps explain the pattern of:
Something terrible happens
Society is outraged
Change is demanded
A new policy is created (or a police chief who believes in reform is hired)
And… nothing changes
Dewan offers that “.. even an institution that wants to change itself can’t overcome it’s architecture.” There are often just too many powerful or slow moving forces that work against change happening. We don’t often talk about the value of institutions, but they are meant to provide value across generations. When designed and maintained well, the slow moving nature of an institution is an asset, not a liability. It’s a different scale of investment and return that many have forgotten.
Fixing a broken system usually requires:
Studying similar systems and why change failed or succeeded
Integrating different kinds of expertise
Considering both symptoms and causes
Attacking the problem from multiple directions
Growing and nurturing a new culture with it’s own stasis/resilience
Understanding feedback loops & how parts of the system influence each other often in complex ways
Committing to the long term, possibly over generations, as change may require more than a single term for mayors, politicians or anyone involved, just to even successfully manage out the defenders of the status quo.
Does your creative team need a morale boost? Perhaps some inspiring new stories of how to design and engineer great things? A change of pace to help them recharge in these unusual times?
The stories and ideas from How Design Makes The World can inspire your staff, let them laugh and learn, all while discovering new ways to think about their work that they can bring into the rest of their day.
I’m available for remote talks for your entire team or organization (provided it’s not part of an event where you want me to be a speaker). If you’re interested in How Design Makes The World, setting this up is easy:
We also made a short film about everyday bad designs, that also celebrates all the good designers who often don’t get the recognition they deserve.
Early reviews include:
“Nobody’s better at explaining how the world really works than Scott Berkun.” —Jeffrey Zeldman, web design legend and cofounder of A List Apart
“What makes a Jacuzzi better than a Segway? Why do street grids work in some cities, but maybe not in yours? What’s wrong with calling an interface ‘intuitive’? This fascinating book will help you see design everywhere and question why it works–or why it fails.” —Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
“An invaluable, essential resource that demystifies and democratizes design for everyone who lives with it–which is to say, all of us.” —Khoi Vinh, principal designer at Adobe and former design director of the New York Times
“Scott Berkun captures the essence of what makes design so incredibly important in our lives. He frames how we should think about design in a fun and accessible way. How Design Makes the World explains why our world is the way it is, and lays out the questions we need to ask to make it better.” —Jared Spool, founder of User Interface Engineering
“Everyone in the tech world knows that they need design, but few understand what it is and how it will help them succeed. Scott Berkun illuminates both the problem and the solution. A brilliant book.” —Alan Cooper, design pioneer and author of About Face
The question: what well designed common object goes unnoticed because it works so well?
The premise: We forget that what we do everyday depends on countless inventions, discoveries, designs and systems. Just to flick on a light switch requires centuries of work and effort on the part of people we never even think about. It’s powerful to take a moment to look thoughtfully at the designs around us. There are inspirations and stories waiting for rediscovery.
Yesterday my feed had many references to a new Marc Andressen essay titled It’s Time to Build. I understand its popularity as it has an enthusiasm that’s in short supply in the tech world today.
But what he has to say floats about the fray in a disturbing way – thousands of people are dying from a problem we aren’t sure we know how to solve. Unemployment is rising towards 20%, which means basic needs for many is now a struggle. The government decisions happening now will determine how many more thousands of people die, especially front-line workers and the poor. And his essay doesn’t give consideration to them at all: having everyone build now will solve everything is his empty answer.
There’s much more. Let’s dig in:
Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings. This monumental failure of institutional effectiveness will reverberate for the rest of the decade, but it’s not too early to ask why, and what we need to do about it.
This sounds compelling at first as I hoped he’d explore what the rest of the world did right, so we can learn from them, but that is nowhere to be found in this essay, despite how well documented our lessons are. What did they do right? Is not a question he seems to have studied. A sign of things to come, or more precisely not to come.
Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed — no Western country, or state, or city was prepared
Here he has made pandemic response binary, either you pass or you fail, which is not how things happen in the world. There’s always a spectrum for how to evaluate outcomes. If he wanted to write about the future he could have, but he starts in the present and makes everyone equal as a way out, which dodges learning anything from what’s happened.
Some U.S. States and European nations responded much better than others, as evidenced by the countless charts we all study daily. But that spectrum isn’t convenient for what Andreessen really wants to say, so he frames the world as pass or fail so he can confidently say that everyone (except for all of Asia which he won’t talk about) has failed.
And pinning the blame means you blame someone who was not involved (which he calls here pinning the cause). You can’t say this about someone whose job is precisely to prevent a thing that ends up happening.
For example, if a CEO calls the threat of a competitor a hoax and tells his staff to ignore it, despite their knowledge and interest in doing something pre-emptive, and then that competitor devastates them a few weeks later, and the stock price tanks, and 20% of staff are fired, it wouldn’t be pinning the blame. Instead it’d be holding the people in power accountable for the consequences of their actions.
Andreessen is avoiding politics by not mentioning Trump, or his staff, or any government agency, all of whom are accountable in degrees for what has happened. Andreesen wants to avoid alienating anyone but he’s doing it at the expense of credibility. Later on he writes:
“We need to demand more of our political leaders…”
But he does the opposite in this essay. We pay our leaders to plan for, respond to and be accountable for the outcomes of major events and he gives them a free pass, without even a mention of who has served their citizens well.
We see this today with the things we urgently need but don’t have. We don’t have enough coronavirus tests, or test materials — including, amazingly, cotton swabs and common reagents. We don’t have enough ventilators, negative pressure rooms, and ICU beds.
A cursory look at the successful pandemic responses showed that if you act early and shut social interaction down quickly, you never need vast quantities of ventilators or ICU beds. I’m not saying we should copy what they all did, as there were many tradeoffs, but we should start by learning from it, instead of leaving it out completely from essays on the subject.
Even if prevention wasn’t possible, we could have had the supplies we needed. They were for sale. But someone has to decide it is worth keeping massive expensive inventories that are rarely used. A hospital owned by a corporation that wants to stay lean to keep profits high, is unlikely to do this. What corporations call inefficiency, in the short term, is often very important in the long.
It’s governments that historically are well suited to insure societies against uncommon but devastating events, like wars, famines and natural disasters. Without shareholders and profit motive they can prioritize differently. America’s prized $748 billion military mostly stockpiles missiles, guns and aircraft that will never be used for their purpose, but we pay anyway. Why? In case we need it. That’s what a government can do. Why the same logic isn’t used when it’s about the health of citizens is a better line of inquiry than simply pointing out that we didn’t have enough of something. A small percent of that military budget might have been enough.
This was not a building problem. It was a priorities problem. A logistical problem. A leadership problem. You could call it many different kinds of problems but building isn’t high on the list.
Making masks and transferring money are not hard. We could have these things but we chose not to — specifically we chose not to have the mechanisms, the factories, the systems to make these things. We chose not to *build
Finally we really get to what he wanted to say all along: BUILD!
But he’s off the rails already. Sure, making masks that sit in a warehouse and transferring money to individual consumers are easy. But that was only part of the challenge. The other parts were:
How to pay for a stockpile of masks/resources that are unlikely to be used for decades
How to quickly distribute masks/resources across 50 states, or between dozens of counties within states, and through various agencies who may not have coordinated before (or pay for the training and exercises to make sure they are always ready)
How to build a public tech money transfer infrastructure within existing legacy (e.g. COBOL) systems that can service citizens during a national crisis
These are hard problems to solve, or in his language, hard solutions to build. He doesn’t frame the problem this way because… I don’t know why.
Maybe because it doesn’t support what he really wants to say? Or maybe he has little experience with massive government infrastructure problems with 30 year old COBOL codebases and didn’t talk to anyone who does, like the folks at 18F or USDS who are technologists who work in the U.S. government and can explain exactly why these challenges are far harder than they appear.
I agree with him that these should be solvable problems but part of the answer is having more of our best young technologists choose to work to help society in profoundly important ways instead of being recruited to join one of Andreessen’s startups that’s going to go try, but likely fail, to disrupt something or other that everyone involved admits isn’t really that important but happens to have a bigger “growth opportunity.”
You don’t just see this smug complacency, this satisfaction with the status quo and the unwillingness to build, in the pandemic, or in healthcare generally. You see it throughout Western life, and specifically throughout American life.
Who has smug complacency? I do not know who he is talking about.
If anything, most of America is angry, scared, lost or grieving, and feels let down in one way or another, which is neither smug nor complacent.
Is he including the people who work at his startups, or use their products? Or the millions of people who use the products his startups are busy competing with to convert into their own customers? Who is he rallying against here? I don’t know and he doesn’t say.
We have top-end universities, yes, but with the capacity to teach only a microscopic percentage of the 4 million new 18 year old’s in the U.S. each year, or the 120 million new 18 year olds in the world each year. Why not educate every 18 year old? Isn’t that the most important thing we can possibly do?
I actually agree that education in America is in a bad place but we’re in a crisis. And even if we weren’t this isn’t a problem of building. It’s a problem of systems, of leadership, policy and bureaucracy. I don’t think Andreessen has watched season 4 of the Wire. If he had, he’d understand how school quality is inextricably linked to city and state politics. It’s a really hard and long term problem that is rarely solved by budgets and technology alone.
You see it in transportation. Where are the supersonic aircraft? Where are the millions of delivery drones? Where are the high speed trains, the soaring monorails, the hyperloops, and yes, the flying cars?
High speed trains? Much of the world has them, but America has not invested much in infrastructure in 50 years. Our highways are bridges are literally falling apart. And our culture has a huge preference for cars over public transportation. In a democracy that makes it pretty hard. Like masks, high speed trains exist, but someone has to decide to pay for them and we haven’t.
Soaring Monorails? I live in Seattle. I know about monorails. They are inefficient and expensive (They also don’t soar – birds do. Maybe he meant speeding monorails? But they don’t get very fast either.) There isn’t one non-imaginary city that uses them effectively (and DisneyWorld doesn’t count).
Hyperloop? Is he only going to mention technological ideas that most experts think are ridiculous for very clear reasons but the uninitiated love to romanticize?
Flying cars? Yes! He did it! Had he mentioned jetpacks too he would have had the full set.
Had he simply listed important problems that he feels we have underinvested in (education, infrastructure, emergency response, climate change) I’d be fully behind him. But that’s not what this is. It’s an underthought list of tech-lust thinking. He was trying to be inspiring here but these are terrible examples.
How about free internet for all? (A timely problem since underprivileged kids can’t do schoolwork from home right now). How about ensuring basic health care for everyone or even that every family has enough food to eat for the next few months? Those are building problems too, but they don’t sound as cool to the tech-centric as his list does. Historically the truly important things technology can do for us in the long term don’t seem cool, but maybe a silver lining of the pandemic is that will change.
Building isn’t easy, or we’d already be doing all this. We need to demand more of our political leaders, of our CEOs, our entrepreneurs, our investors. We need to demand more of our culture, of our society. And we need to demand more from one another. We’re all necessary, and we can all contribute, to building.
I’m doing my part my demanding more from his essay. And you can do the same by demanding more of mine.
I’d prefer you also go into the part of your community that is struggling right now and help them get the basics they need. If you go to them (virtually of course) and listen, and pay attention, and learn, I bet you’ll find plenty of easy things to build that will help them right now.
Even better, find people already building solutions, and have been working on these problems for years, who need more money or other support. Builders are often bad at helping if it doesn’t involve them building something themselves (e.g. the mostly pointless pandemic hackathons), even if they’re not the best person to do it.
There is only one way to honor their legacy and to create the future we want for our own children and grandchildren, and that’s to build.
I can agree with this. Provided we’re talking about building societies, safety nets, higher quality of life for communities and the tools they actually need to make that future, I’m in. Or building better tools and telling better stories for reminding us how interconnected our fates are.
But first we have a crisis to solve. And unless you’ve lived through a pandemic before, it’s time to learn before we act. We have to look to our experts who know the options and the tradeoffs and how they played out in the past. And more than anything, resist the temptation to jump ahead and likely repeat the mistakes that have been made before.
And/or are you passionate about good design, of products, of cities, of societies, and want more people to understand it, care about it and fight for it? Especially with all that’s happening now?
Then I need you! You are a great candidate for this street team.
A street team is a small group of people passionate about a book, or a topic, who are willing to volunteer a little time in return for early access.
You probably already talk to your coworkers and friends about why they should care more about good design or a well-designed world (or wish you were better at it). This book was designed to be a natural ally and asset for you.
What you get if you join:
a free pre-release copy of the book
images, quotes, excerpts and other easy to share material
weekly goals so we can work together as a team
a fun and good project to root for
Training on how to persuade people to care about design
rewards like signed book copies and free coaching sessions for most active folks
Direct access to me as I’m on the team too!
What you do:
Write a review on Amazon / GoodReads
Share images and quotes to your network, on Facebook, Twitter or other media
Recommend the book to influential people you know
Teach people why good design is important (the book makes this easy)
When Dr. Jan Mikulicz-Radecki designed the first surgical mask, he was questioned by his peers: they didn’t believe that by creating something so simple, millions of lives could be saved. And when chief nurse Caroline Hampton complained about her hands after assisting with surgery, William Halsted was inspired to design the first surgical gloves and asked her to be the first to test them. These stories are just two among thousands about how ideas became things we depend on. Most ideas go nowhere, it’s true, as it takes more than just having an idea to change the world. We need people who know how to make ideas real. And for this, designers are among the best we have.
Every challenge we’ve overcome in human history was led by a designer of one kind or another. Someone designed the first city, the first market, and the first hospital. It was a leader who designed regulations to keep people safe (or not) or crafted plans to help them recover after a crisis (or not). Design is everywhere we look and in everything we depend on. It explains what resources we can get or wish we had, fueling the fears that we find hard to shake. Mostly design is an act of hope. It’s the belief there is a better way and that creativity and persistence will find it.
We take good design for granted, as when it works we assume “it just happened that way.” When we flick a light switch or take a hot shower, it never enters our minds how many people with different design skills worked hard, over decades, just so we could live our lives free from thinking about their work. It’s only when things fail that we start to ask questions that perhaps we should have considered all along. Design questions. What were the goals? What tradeoffs were made? How could this fail (or have been designed to be more resilient?)
Often we dismiss design as a matter of luxury: designer handbags, designer jeans, designer living rooms. But we’ve been forced to see the limitations in the design of our systems, like schools, markets, and hospitals, which like a light switch, we assumed would always work without a thought. Design defines our social safety nets, our shared plans for emergencies, and our systems that either help us, or prevent us, from working towards the greater good, especially when lives are at stake.
Someone designed every chart, each curve and line, updating you about the state of the world, and the cities where your friends and family live. Another kind of designer designed the database that makes those charts work. Someone designed every sign or video you see about “flatten the curve”, “physical distancing” or “how to wash your hands”. Someone designed your sick leave policy, and the policy for the people who drive your bus or make your food, assuming you and they even have one. Someone is working right now to design a vaccine, or better logistics for your supermarket or even a society that works with fewer people working.
There are designers everywhere working hard right now and the work they do matters more than it ever has before. Websites, services, systems and laws are being designed, and redesigned, right now, and their quality will determine who struggles, who survives and who thrives. We all must learn and think more about good design: it profoundly impacts our lives and the sooner more people understand how good design is done, and demand it, the more likely we’ll see it where we need it most.
I wrote the book How Design Makes The World to teach everyone, from any walk of life, how to better understand good design and look at their world in a new way.
[UPDATE: the book is no longer free! Sorry if you missed it. We gave it away to all for over a month and more than 15k people downloaded the popular book. Hope it helps people figure out our new working world. You can of course still buy the book in various formats].
Most designers agree the world would be a better place if more people understood good design. But since designers are always in the minority, outnumbered by managers, marketers, programmers and more, who is going to show them the way? Enter the design ambassador.
Design ambassadors already exist, they just don’t go by that name. They’re the ones who know how to talk about the value of good design in ways most folks can understand. They’re comfortable talking to executives or project managers, confidently making business cases for design resources. They’re OK with the management politics for budgets and strategy and working to gain influence. They’re patient in teaching, for the 50th time, the same basic ideas and concepts to new clients or coworkers, no matter how senior or junior they are.
They do this because they know no one else but designers can or will do it. If we want a better-designed world, or product or organization, or more respect for design, it will only come from designers gaining power or the ability to influence it. Design ambassadors know from human nature the challenge isn’t about more design knowledge: it’s about persuasion, teaching, coaching and inspiring others to think differently.
I’m excited to announce my next book is almost here. It’s called How Design Makes The World and it teaches anyone how to better understand good design.
It’s been 5 years in the making, yet it’s one of my shortest and most fun to read books.
This book teaches everyone:
What good design is and why it’s so important
How our lives are defined by designs, good and bad, made by others
How to ask better questions of everything we buy, use and make
And it gives designers and makers:
A fun and fast way to explain what we do to coworkers and friends
A tool for making organizations more design mature
Stories to use to be a better ambassador for good design
Early praise and reviews:
“This fascinating book will help you see design everywhere and question why it works—or why it fails” – Ellen Lupton, curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
“An invaluable, essential resource that demystifies and democratizes design for everyone who lives with it—which is to say, all of us.” – Khoi Vinh, Principal Designer at Adobe and Former Design Director of The New York Times
“Design does indeed make the world, and Scott Berkun has written a highly readable book about this fact.” – Henry Petroski, author of Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design
I posted on twitter recently asking for recommendations. Specifically for non-designers who need some design literacy, but without the goal of becoming a professional designer. Not UI design, not UX, but focusing on aesthetics.
Often pro designers recommend books from their degree program, but that’s not quite what I’m after, as those books tend to assume you’re going to be a practicing visual designer and are willing to endure textbook experiences (which aren’t known for being good reads or for achieving any level of fun).
Here’s the list, annotated with my notes (as I’ve read some of them).
Non Designer’s Design Book, Robin Williams. (recommended by 4 people) It’s also my current go to recommendation, and was glad to see it’s still popular for this scenario. Covers the fundamentals of making things look good, covering composition, color theory, layout, typography and more. Unlike many visual design books it’s practical and by example.
Go, by Chip Kidd (recommended by 4). Written for kids, but don’t let that stop you. I’m part way in and that seems to just mean it’s friendly and well written. I wish more books were. It’s FUN, so rare a thing for design books.
How To See, George Nelson. A fun and visual to thinking about design that uses a cityscape, streets, cars, buildings, as the way to start thinking about the design of things. But it’s not focused on visual design.
The Vignelli Cannon, Massimo Vignelli. A collection of one of the most famous graphic designers works. It would help someone new to design to understand what design is, but doesn’t teach specific concepts or how to start to critique designs experienced in everyday life.
Slideology, Nancy Duarte. It’s primarily about presentation slide design, but it does thoughtfully introduce many basic visual design concepts).
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Tufte This book is recommended often but for the wrong reasons. It’s a beautiful book, but it’s focused on a narrow kind of design: visualizing data. It’s not easy to learn from for understanding design in general. It’s rare that most people will need to think about representing data visually, which is the focus of this book.
[UPDATE – WINNER HAS BEEN CHOSEN: will reveal who won once they confirm.]
I have a free conference pass for IXDA’s Interaction 20, in Milan, Italy this year. I was granted a free pass to the conference in return for speaker coaching for their speakers, but turns out I can’t use it.
I’d hate to see it go to waste, so if you’re able to go (Feb 5-7, 2020) and arrange your own travel, leave a comment.
This Friday I’ll do a random drawing from the comments and pick a winner (and will update here that it’s all over).
If your comment makes me laugh, I’ll count it twice in the random drawing.