Lessons from the Xerox-914: the first real copy machine

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.

Even so, they had great sucecss marketing it on ease of use – including a TV ad where a young girl, Debbie, makes copies.

A follow up ad used a chimpanzee, but led to harassment for secretaries and was rarely used.

Compared to today it’s true these machines were:

  • large
  • hard to maintain
  • fragile
  • 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. 

References:

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chester_C…
amazon.com/Copies-Seconds…
cosmosmagazine.com/technology/sci…
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battelle_…
books.google.com/books?id=ZYurh…

Design hero: Chuck Harrison

[Originally this was a twitter thread – reposted here with various edits and link corrections]

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.

Many of these quotes and photos are from Harrison’s own memoir and portfolio – A Life’s Design (which I recommend – he writes well). There’s also a thoughtful obituary from the NYTimes about his life and work. #designmtw #design #inspiration

“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

Police Reform and Systems Design in 5 Clear Points

Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, has said that police culture has long been detached from the needs of the communities they are supposed to serve and that it needs to be transformed. Police racism and abuse of power are well documented, but why have so many attempts at reform failed? At one obvious level if the culture in an organization is still unchanged, what should we expect? But yet many of the tactics that have been tried address only symptoms and are often subverted as changing a policy does not change culture.

Charles P. Wilson, Chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, has even stated, “The [police] system was designed to keep poor people under control” reflecting how even today the disturbing roots of policing in America (slave patrols in the south, protecting the wealthy, warrior vs. guardian culture) retain their influence.

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.

Dewan’s five systems are listed here – I’ve modified them slightly and added my own notes (you can hear her explain them on the podcast):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. Something terrible happens
  2. Society is outraged
  3. Change is demanded
  4. A new policy is created (or a police chief who believes in reform is hired)
  5. 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.

References / Related:

Want me to make a virtual book tour visit at your organization?

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:

  1. All you need to do is purchase 30 or more copies of How Design Makes The World for your team (you can buy bulk kindle editions, or print through Amazon, Bookshop or Porchlight)
  2. If you want signed copies (print, obviously!), and/or a custom header page in each book (with your organizations logo and a custom message), this can be arranged for a fee + shipping costs.
  3. Contact me to schedule a day/time that works best.
  4. I’ll briefly share key stories and themes from the book, followed by an extended Q&A with you and your team.

Not sure? Here’s a short film that might help get you inspired.



Available now: How Design Makes The World (+trailer)

The day is here. You can now buy How Design Makes The World in various formats and from all the usual stores.

You can buy the book:

You can read sample chapters or hear my quick rundown on who the book is for and what it’s about.

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

You can buy the book at:

(video) 5 minutes to explain How Design Makes the World

Yesterday I’d planned to do a livestream about ideas from the new book, but Twitter/Periscope refused to allow it (Vague “Initializing stream…” message never managed to finish it’s job).

Instead… I improvised this short explainer video. Which was surprisingly fun to do. Did you like this? Hit the like button or leave me a comment here and I’ll do more of these.

Who is the book for? Why did I write it? Why should you care? It’s all answered here.



LIST: 60+ well designed everyday things that go unnoticed

With the new book coming out, I’m running a little contest on Twitter. Best three answers get a signed copy of How Design Makes The World.

[UPDATE: Winners were already chosen. I chose: the key, the alphabet and the mirror. But feel free to add more you think are worthy to the comments to the list in comments.]

The question: what well designed common object goes unnoticed because it works so well?

Contest closes at 11:30am PST Wed. April 29th. I’ll announce the winners live on Twitter at 12pm.

Leave your entry in the comments or on Twitter. Even if you miss the deadline I’d still love to hear what comes to mind for you.

Here’s the list so far:

  1. The simple toaster oven
  2. Japanese nail clipper
  3. The pencil
  4. The clockface
  5. Yellow dotted line in middle of roads
  6. On road reflectors / Cat’s eye
  7. Bathroom entrances without doors
  8. Mythical bathroom where you don’t touch anything?
  9. Aglets (tips of shoelaces)
  10. Scotch Tape roll holder
  11. Paper Clip
  12. Phillips screw and screwdriver
  13. Cigarette Boxes
  14. Chapstick
  15. Running water
  16. Safety Pin
  17. Hinges
  18. Alphabet
  19. Light switches
  20. Corkscrew
  21. Book
  22. Peeler
  23. Concrete
  24. Toilet Paper
  25. Bidet
  26. Spoon
  27. Stairs
  28. The Metric system
  29. Glass
  30. Handicapped symbols
  31. Chopsticks
  32. Mirrors
  33. Keys / Lock & Key
  34. Hammer
  35. Clothes buttons
  36. Bicycle
  37. Tire pressure valves
  38. Toothpick
  39. Mattress
  40. Glasses
  41. Scarf
  42. Single level mixer (a faucet that controls both temp and water pressure)
  43. Escalator
  44. Waste disposal / recycling
  45. Elevators
  46. Safety Matches
  47. Dog door
  48. Differential gears
  49. Traffic signs
  50. Curb cuts
  51. The dial
  52. The smell added to natural gas
  53. Windshield wippers
  54. Soda can tabs
  55. A mug
  56. Ballpoint pen
  57. Light bulb
  58. Decimal number system
  59. Zipper
  60. Cardboard

Have an interesting one I should consider? Leave a comment.

It’s Time To Learn

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.

In the movie Catch-22 a corporation replaces parachutes of active WWII war planes with shares of stock, using the logic “when was the last time you actually used one? Wouldn’t you rather grow wealth instead?” Which works great until your plane is going down, which planes at war, and nations in pandemics, often do.

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? 

What year is he writing this in? Schools and universities are closed indefinitely right now and some are likely to go bankrupt.

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?

We are now fully in bad example territory.

  • Supersonic aircraft? The Concorde was expensive. And noisy. And is convenience of faster air travel really important for the foreseeable future?
  • 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.

Want a better world, by design? Join the street team

Want to read my upcoming book, How Design Makes The World, before everyone else?

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) 

Interested? All you have to do is go here and answer a few questions. Thank you.

Design During Pandemic: an Inspiring Visual Collection

Good design is a critical part of all that’s going on during this crisis: the design of respirators, of supply chains and of public policy in times of crisis. The number of services and systems that are being redesigned on the fly reinforces the notion that design matters more than ever.

There’s also some excellent visual design work happening to help the cause. Communicating information to the masses is a critical part of saving people’s lives.

We all need some inspiration these days – here’s a collection of the best design work I’ve seen.

Did I miss a good one? Leave a comment with a link and I’ll add it in.

Click on the image to go to the source.

https://twitter.com/SinghLions/status/1240686550939136003

Did I miss a good one? Leave a comment with a link. Thx.

The World Needs Designers Now More Than Ever

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.

Buy the book, watch the short film, read free chapters or have some fun and spread the word.

Photo Credit

Free digital version of The Year Without Pants (my book on Remote Work)

[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].

I worked with Wiley, the publisher of The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and The Future of Work, to make the digital editions of the book free to all. We’re doing this to help anyone who is adjusting to remote work acclimate to what the next few weeks or months will be like.

Please spread the word. You can also read all of my posts and essays about remote work here.

Wanted: Ambassadors For Good Design

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.

My mission is to bring design ambassadors together, to help them and to coach new ones. I wrote an upcoming book to pave some of the way for us all.

Will you help? 

  • Are you a design ambassador? Will you share what you know with me?
  • Do you know a great design ambassador I should talk to?
  • Do you want to become a better ambassador for design?
  • Would you help me find, organize, or create, resources design ambassadors need?

If you can say yes to any of these, please leave a comment or get in touch. Thanks. 

My new book – How Design Makes The World (Coming Soon)

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

You can read more early reviews and sign-up to be notified when pre-orders are available by going here.

What’s the best first book on visual / graphic 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).
  • Graphic Design: The New Basics, Ellen Lupton (new to me).
  • 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.
  • Thinking With Type, Ellen Lupton. Recommended twice. I’ve read her Design is Storytelling, which is excellent, but not this one.
  • Graphic Design Rules, Peter Dawson (new to me).
  • Graphic Design as a second language, Bob Gill (new to me).
  • Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works, Erik Spiekermann, E.M. Ginger (It’s a friendly a short introduction, but focused on typography).
  • Design Basics Index, Jim Krause (new to me).
  • The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst. It’s a beautiful book but very focused on typography as the name suggests.
  • he New Typography, Tschichold. It’s apparently a classic, but this is the first time I’ve heard it mentioned.

Free pass to Interaction 20

[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.

Help wanted: motion graphics / video for book launch trailer


[Update: filmmaker found! Position closed.]

My next book, How Design Makes Out the World, comes out in a few months. I’m looking to hire a motion graphics / video producer to make a trailer video to help market the book and get the word out.

Interested? Or know someone you’d recommend? Provide a link to a portfolio in a comment below, or send it here.

Trailer Design Brief:  

Vision: The book teaches everyone what good design is and why it’s so important. It uses everyday objects and real life situations as the basis for asking new questions about our daily lives and how design impacts our quality of life. One approach to the trailer could be as simple as stock footage of everyday experiences (driving in traffic, making dinner, dealing with meetings at work, etc.) overlayed with motion graphics and narration calling out things we don’t notice and hinting at how much we can learn from looking at them in a new way (that the book provides).

Length: 1 to 2 minutes at most

Previous book trailers I’ve had made:


Cover design vote: How Design Makes The World (first round)

My next book, which teaches just about everyone how to understand good design, is on the home stretch (release May 2020). Which means it’s time to get your feedback on cover design directions (I’m working with PageTwo Books).

If you haven’t been following along (outline and more at the link), Here are the book’s goals.

The book’s goals are:

  • To teach anyone to see people, places and things more like our best designers do.
  • To invite everyone to ask better questions about the designs they experience every day.
  • To give designers a compelling, short book they can share with coworkers, clients and friends to explain what they do and why it’s so important.
  • To have fun while understanding the world. Life is too short.

Stories in the book explore city design, product design, web design, aethetics, design process, flow, user research, mobile design, ethics, system theory, inclusion, business, org politics, tradeoffs, design for conflict and more.

Rules for Feedback

  • These are preliminary so the specific images or objects should be considered placeholders.
  • You’re voting on the approach, rather than for these being the final cover.
  • The book is for everyone, not just you. Your personal opinion is interesting, but if you’re a designer most people buying this book won’t be.
  • The brief is: clear, simple, inviting. Fun if possible. Readable in a thumbnail.
  • Thoughtful comments welcome.

Approach A

One approach to thinking about the world, with a sample map etching as the background.

Approach B

Simpler visual style one an anchored image, in this case a globe (one idea for representing the world). Some variations below.

Approach C

Rough sketch – the idea here is to show some kind of progression in style and fidelity. This was done quickly but if we went down this path we’d invest in high quality hand lettering.

Approach D

The background images suggest different kinds of design, and there could be many different options for what’s put there. Or how many there are.

Option below shows a different orientation of the images.



Help wanted: design literacy for everyone project

UPDATE: This book is in progress – head over here for details: designmtw.com.

My next book is about teaching basic design literacy to everyone.

The pitch: Everything we use, from social media, to our homes, to our highways, was designed by someone. But how did they decide on what was good for the rest of us? What did they get right and where have they let us down? And what can we learn from the way these experts think that can help us in how we make decisions in our own lives?

The goal won’t be to teach readers to be designers (which takes experience and practice). Instead, it’s to get them to design literacy. Which means to understand why design is so important, the basics of how good designers do it, and to be able to think critically about what’s well designed and what isn’t in their daily life and the world. It’s also a book designers will want to read, as it explains design in a fresh, inspiring and powerful way.

The plan is to make this a fun community project (join the list here). It will be funded through Kickstarter, so we control the intellectual property and can donate parts of it away (to schools or other groups) as we choose. Backers will be able to help the project as it develops, including participating in UX methods I’m using to write the book itself.

Project advisors include: Jared Spool (founder of UIE), Kim Goodwin (author of Designing for the Digital Age & former VP of Design at Cooper), Christina Wodtke (lecturer at Stanford and co-founder of IIA), Lisa deBettencourt (co-founder of Pearl Partners & co-founder of IXDA), Sam Aquillano (Executive Director, Design Museum Foundation), Laura Klein (Principal at Users Know), Nick Finck (Distinguished Faculty at General Assembly, CXO at Craft & Rigor) and Bob Baxley (former design director at Apple and Pinterest).

The team has two important (part time / freelance) roles I’m hiring for:

Graphic Designer. You will be the lead designer for the book (cover design experience please), as well as for the related materials evangelizing design itself through the project website, the kickstarter campaign, fun marketing materials like posters, stickers and other side projects you propose. You’re expected to be a collaborator on the book itself, from the title to the chapters themselves and to participate with the project community. I’m open to working with a design studio for this role, or a Voltron-like team of freelancer friends, as this job description is admittedly unicorn-y.

Design researcher. A book is a designed object just like any other and the researcher will apply user-research methods during the development of the book and related materials. They’ll work with the author to define a research plan for the book (which may never have been done before from a UX context before!), help with general research (who already teaches design literacy well?), conduct research and offer findings, and make recommendations to the author and other collaborators. You will be invited to collaborate on the book itself, from the title to the chapters themselves and help with the project community.

To apply, do the following:

  1. In 10 sentences or less tell me why design literacy is important to you
  2. Provide a link to your resume or LinkedIn
  3. When are you available to start?
  4. Designers: include a link to the related bits of your portfolio. Researchers: a link (or brief summary) of the most related, or the most unusual, research you’ve done.
  5. Bonus points for a reference or two.
  6. There is no step 6! Since it’s nice when applications have one less annoying step than you expect.
  7. Basic info on your rates / fees for an unusual project like this
  8. Send the above to this address, with the subject “for hire: design literacy (designer or researcher)”

And/or if you want to follow this project, please join this list for updates. Thanks!