What’s the one book you give to explain design?
It can be hard to explain what design even is. It is used as noun and a verb, it applies to making things look good but is also about defining how they work. It applies to new tech and media (often called user experience) but also to how our homes, streets and towns are designed (often called interior design, architecture, and urban planning). It is a big, complicated subject. And there’s no great introductory book. At least not yet. Books are often an excellent solution for problems like this – you can give someone a 2 or 4 hour experience that explains the whole thing in one self contained narrative. The goal of the the book I’m working on, and that this website is for, is to write that book for Design. To make something designers of different specializations feel comfortable as the introduction for to their coworkers or families for what they do. Many fields have well known books that solve this problem. They’re often called primer books. For example: Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, By Neil deGrasse-Tyson. Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande. The Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain De Botton. The titles themselves self describe the purpose: written for anyone, with any background, and invites them in to an important world, without expecting them (but likely hoping) to read more on the subject. The world of design has few books like this. Most books about design are written for other designers, or people who want to become designers. Or are narrowly focused one on kind of design. In all my research (see reading list) here are the four books that work as the best introduction to what design is with my critique on their limitations. 1. How To See: A Guide to Reading Our Man Made Environment, George Nelson This book fell off the map of the design world in the 80s, but it’s among the best single books I’ve found that explains Design – in all its forms, with the intent on inviting people in (look at the fun cover!) to see the world and ask better questions of it. It’s short, it uses images to tell the story, and operates mostly on the reader’s turf: the things they see and experience in their daily lives. The even more obscure Why Design?, by Slafer & Cahill is perhaps a better book. Written in 1995 by the Smithsonian Building Museum staff as part of an exhibit, it’s mostly unknown today. But it is SO GOOD. Smart, well written, it takes on politics and power as integral to how design happens. As well as inclusivity, bias, aesthetics, process… you name it. It was written for teenagers, but you wouldn’t know that If I didn’t tell you – it does not pull any punches. However, the format is mostly exercises and checklists, there’s no digital edition, and its a large-sized print book, which all contribute against making it an easy recommendation for most readers. 2. Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman This book is referenced, and used in more intro to design courses, than almost any other book. When it was first released as the Psychology of Everyday Things, it wasn’t a huge hit, but it earned a great reputation over time and earned its way to become a classic. It focuses on usability, and how cognitive psychology explains why things we use are hard or easy to use. And the second edition does a better job of exploring why businesses and organizations fail to do a good job, and shores up the…
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