If you care about design, I would posit that the most pressing evolutionary challenge it faces is not design systems or design-to-code or even accessible design, as worthwhile as perfecting those pursuits might be. Rather, the single most consequential barrier to design’s next level of success is simply explaining itself to society at large.
What is design? And how does it work? Answer those questions in clear, relatable language and the world suddenly becomes a very different place in which to practice our craft.
Writer and design thinker Scott Berkun’s new book How Design Makes the World does a shockingly good job of doing just that. In 20 crisply written chapters across just over 200 pages, Berkun breaks down the mechanics of design and demonstrates its ubiquity and importance to nearly every aspect of life. It’s a cogent, incredibly illuminating antidote to the fog and mystery that has shrouded the practice of design for practically its entire history.
When I was lucky enough to read it in galleys prior to its publication, I felt a curious mixture of joy and professional jealousy. On the one hand, How Design Makes the World is an instant classic that every designer will want to read and own for themselves—as well as, probably, to gift copies to the clients and stakeholders they work with. And on the other hand, having been intensely interested myself for a long time in this idea of making design more understandable, I couldn’t help but think, “I wish I’d written this book.” Berkun has done a wonderful service in writing this, not just to the world of design, but to the world at large. He was kind enough to agree to discuss the book with me in an interview that we conducted over email.
First, tell me about this title. It doesn’t lack for ambition. What is the message you’re trying to send, and how did you settle on it?
To the depression of many designers, the good work we do goes largely unnoticed. This should change! The world has so many problems today that would be easier to solve if people benefited from the knowledge designers have. But designers aren’t great at inviting people in and warmly teaching them to see. The title was the clearest way to establish the stakes—design affects everything—but make it inviting and welcoming.
“The world has so many problems today that would be easier to solve if people benefited from the knowledge designers have.”
So is the title—and the book—intended more for an audience of designers? Or others?
It’s intended for both in a clever way. It’s designed around powerful stories, so no jargon or background is needed. Executives, programmers, and just about anyone is welcomed in to learn. For designers, it gives a fresh set of stories to share and better tactics for teaching others, while giving them new hope and inspiration about why what they do is so important.
What made you realize that you needed to write this book?
I studied design in college but my career was mostly as a general project leader, a decision maker who had to bring everyone together. I’ve spent most of my life in the middle, translating between executives, engineers, marketers, and designers, and designers usually have the low ground in organizations. Every designer has to teach their coworkers themselves, and start over with new teams and projects. It’s tiring. We have good books on our shelves, but they weren’t designed to solve this. I was well suited for this task and no one else had done it.
I’ve felt that exhaustion of having to explain the fundamentals of design, over and over, myself. Why do you think that even with design’s profile being higher than ever, we still struggle to define exactly what it is to the uninitiated?
One part is the high profile of design isn’t uniform. A few companies are clearly design-driven, and they get talked about often at design conferences, but most teams at most companies are not led with design as a strategy. It’s a tougher landscape. A second part is many designers don’t like or don’t want to be ambassadors. They just want to “design” and see pioneering as an unrewarding chore, which is okay—but then who is going to make it better now and for the next generation? Third, there aren’t many tools that help. Most design books, courses, and movies are made for designers, not for everyone else. Fourth, there’s a lot of fear among some designers that if they teach too much, they’ll be out of a job. Many designers want to be better respected and understood but feel it’s beneath them or dangerous to make design less mysterious and invest in changing things.
That last part especially resonates with me. I’ve come to believe that, consciously or subconsciously, many designers are actually invested in people not understanding the craft. How deep do you think this runs?
It’s as deep as it can get. Many designers have been picked on and disrespected, sometimes even in design school! Some were art kids who didn’t fit in. They know that creativity is personally important, but they also know that most people, including possibly their parents, do not understand it or respect it. They’ve seen design trivialized generally by culture. Psychologically that weighs on how any person sees their profession. The fear is that if their boss or coworker learns a tiny bit, they’ll think “I’m a designer now” and they’ll get fired. There’s safety in quietly doing a job and not revealing too much, so “the secret magic” remains theirs. Of course it’s usually the opposite: teach someone the first taste of a skill and they get new eyes—suddenly they see how much they don’t know. But that requires confidence in how your profession is perceived. That’s definitely a common thread in design culture: a conflict between ambition and fear. They want good design to be popular and respected, including their own work, but fear doing the things required to make that happen.
I wonder if you think stakeholders or clients, especially, are also complicit in this? I’ve always had the impression that a certain class of client—often very high in the pecking order—want to hire designers who can dazzle them, or their board of directors, with design mystery or theatrics.
I’m fascinated by how most people think of creative work as high excitement, as their experience with it is mostly from TV and movies. Every pitch meeting on shows like “Mad Men” is just three minutes long, with an orchestrated soundtrack and Emmy-worthy dialogue performed by actors with off the charts charisma. It’s no wonder stakeholders and clients tend to want magic. They have no other conception of what it’s supposed to feel like to have discussions about ideas. So I agree they are complicit, but often from ignorance.
On one side, getting clients is sales work and dazzling people can help sell. And early in a project an inspiring (but unrealistic) prototype can get a team excited. Hard to argue against that. But when it’s deceptive or defeats the clients own goals, it breaks the golden rule. It’s up to the professional, the designer in our case, to show there’s a better way to think about what good is. This is similar perhaps to how a doctor would advise a patient that they don’t need an MRI for a paper cut. Since design will never be at the center of culture (but we can get much closer!), how good we are at explaining it and being ambassadors is critical. But it takes skill to do this without adding friction, and if you’re struggling to pay bills and your clients demand magic shows, it’s hard to resist for long. Yet if we all do this, the status quo remains.
Okay so it sounds like it’s safe to say that there are some serious myths or misconceptions that you’re out to dismantle. Can you describe how your book tries to do that?
There are two big ones I take on directly in the book. One: that design is hard to explain. It’s not! The trap is trying to teach it with theory and posturing (“I want you to learn… to be impressed by what I know!”), a trap many experts fall into. But we know people’s brains learn best from stories. How did UI design make the Notre Dame Cathedral fire worse? That’s a story. Why did a city rotate half of its streets forty-five degrees so driving is confusing and dangerous? That’s a story too. The book is a series of well-crafted stories, each unpacked in entertaining ways using concepts from design to explain why these good or bad things have happened to all of us. It does the heavy lifting designers need to do with their co-workers and communities (and often for the designers themselves, who can use a refreshed view on what they do and why).
Two: that design is just the trivial surface of things. Most people think of design as a layer on top, the final paint color or style (which is often harder and more powerful than people think). But design goes all the way down. Why is the border between India and Pakistan where it is, and often in conflict? Someone designed it. Why is the nearest bus stop one block or fifty blocks from where you live? Someone designed that too. Why does a McDonald’s cheeseburger have three buns? And where’d that “special sauce” come from? Again, it was designed! The book’s stories come from a wide variety of places (by design!) to connects how the challenges of say mobile app design shares a lineage with hundreds of other kinds of design work, and seeing it that way changes how you we the world and what we can do in it.
Most people think of design as a layer on top, the final paint color or style (which is often harder and more powerful than people think). But design goes all the way down.
The breadth of the stories in the book is impressive, both in variety and also in demonstrating how design is really just everywhere.
Glad you feel that way!
Are these stories that you’ve collected over the years, or did you start with specific principles you wanted to examine and then came to find the stories through research?
I’m obsessed with these kinds of stories and have been studying them since college. I’m just fascinated by how everything works (or doesn’t). But once I have a rough outline of what a book is supposed to do for the reader, I start looking at the news and anything I read more carefully. I become a design investigator. I’ll dig up obscure books that often have fresh takes and examples (popular books often sing the same notes). I don’t respect category boundaries: many great design stories come from engineering or business or history writing. I do lots of research and then in early drafts the game is figuring out which stories can fit where, if at all. And then in later drafts it’s how it all fits together. It’s a design process, really. And some great stories I hoped to use just don’t fit, much like a designer discovers some of their best ideas need to get cut to make space for the other ideas to shine.
Which of the stories that did make it into the book do you think are the most surprising or most instructive?
It’s staggering to think that much of the Notre Dame Cathedral burned to the ground because of a basic usability problem any junior design student could have solved. That shock wakes readers up, which is why it’s early in the book. And the irony that something built well enough more than six hundred years ago to still be here was decimated by a design flaw created here and now in our proud era of high technology. That contrast makes clear design is indeed everywhere, both the good and the bad. Had a couple of more people known design basics so many terrible things that happened would have been wonderful things instead. I’d really like to help change that.
That one is a real eye opener, for sure, and so heartbreaking. What strikes me about that story is that as it was reported, and it was reported extensively, design barely got a mention. In fact, for most of these stories, design is really a secondary narrative, hidden in the background. It’s almost as if as a culture, or maybe as a species, humans can’t see design, even when it’s hiding in plain sight—or even when it produces tragic outcomes like the fire at Notre Dame. Would you agree?
I feel that way but I’m not sure of the cause. Some of the challenge is that news itself is designed. And as an industry they’ve been so decimated for the last 20 years it’s hard to even calculate how their reduced ability to investigate and explain things has impacted us. They do involve design experts when it’s something like the butterfly ballot, or the Boeing 737 MAX, but that’s only if the journalist thinks to ask one and has a basic notion of how design isn’t only aesthetics or interior design but is integral to everything. There’s just not enough design literacy yet in the people who write the news.
One self-inflicted trap is that good designers strive for their work to become invisible. Even now I’m not thinking about the design of the keyboard I’m typing on, the screen I’m looking at or the email software I’m using (okay, well now I am, but you get my point) and I wrote a book on why we should notice everything!
I wonder if when we shifted into consumer culture, where fewer people make things, it’s easier to imagine that phones and cars just fall from the sky in finished form. We’re exposed to far less of the process of how everything, from food, to technology, to laws, are made. I’m hopeful though: we are naturally curious creatures. All it takes is the right spark, or story or question and people’s sense of wonder rises.
How much are you actually trying to stoke that sense of wonder, to get more people interested in design, with this book?
As much as possible. But I wrote the book with professional designers in mind too—many of us have become jaded, tired of trying to explain it with the same old stories. I wanted to give us a fresh way to think about what we do and the profound possibilities of a society that was more design literate.
So can you imagine a future where design is much better understood, much more present in our everyday thinking as a society? And, aside from the key role that this book might play, what is necessary for us to get there?
I can! In a way, I’ve seen it. In 1994 I couldn’t get a job doing interaction design (what we now call UX design). A career doing it didn’t exist. I’d never have imagined then how well accepted and understood the role of design would become in the tech world. Not even close. But we know there’s a long way to go. We just need to make it an inspiring mission and give more designers the skills and tools to show the way and celebrate the people who’ve done it and are doing it now. And for that reason and more thanks for what you do and for taking the time to interview me here.
This piece originally ran on Khoi Vinh’s blog Subtraction.