These past months I’ve been diving deep into books. In these times when I haven’t been able to fully explore places or physical creation, I’ve found that reading scratches curiosity, helps me find new questions of inquiry, and helps me consider new conclusions that I haven’t yet considered. Here are some of my favorite books on design approaches and processes.
Beyond Sticky Notes: Co-Design for Real Mindsets, Methods, and Movements
Kelly Ann McKercher
The brilliant senior designer on my last project recommended this book to me. There were so many nuggets, tips, processes, and flags on carrying out a truly inclusive design process. Ever since I’ve gotten into design, I’ve been taught that it is inherently for everyone. The general impression I gathered through 4 years of design school is that ‘Human centered’ design is enough on its own and can solve a huge number of problems. While we did discuss shortcomings of design and had many theoretical conversations and lectures on the larger systemic issues, we did not put much of that thought into practice. There’s only so much you can put into practice within the bubble of theoretical projects in school. Even so, I feel like this book should be required reading for every designer engaging in research and creation.
What makes a design process inclusive? Noticeably absent from my original design education were terms like ‘redistribution of power,’ ‘colonizing design,’ and ‘lived experience’ which this book goes deeply into. While there are a number of tools and frameworks to facilitate real co-design, the biggest takeaway from this book was the need for broader conditions and organizational structures to keep us from falling into what we’ve always done. Moving at the speed of connection and no faster, prioritizing relationships rather than outputs, and shifting from designing for to designing with and designing by. My hope is that the design field looks deeper at ‘human centered’ design and moves in the direction of this book.
“Codesign is an approach to designing with, not for, people. It involves power sharing, prioritizing relationships, using participatory means, and building capability….Codesign “initiative” is used deliberately in place of ‘project’ to stress that co-design is not merely a project, but a long term commitment to changing organizational culture and sharing power.” (8)
“When we make decisions on behalf of other people, we assume we understand their dreams, needs, experiences and capacities, or lack thereof. I doing that, we overlook their knowledge and their skills. I believe that in order to improve systems and services we need to build the capability of communities. Codesign is one way of doing that” (10)
“While curiosity is vital to all creative work, it is countercultural to stash curious when we are rewarded for asserting our views and being quick to provide answers. Curious people are often seen as troublemakers or lacking in competence. Similar to an immune response, they are often rejected from the places that need them most. Curiosity builds on listening generously, slowing down, embracing many world views and resisting quick fixes” (62)
“Build the conditions is the first phase of the co-design process. It’s about sharing power, prioritizing relationships, building trust, and establishing the right conditions for the meaningful and safe participation of people with lived experience. While you might be tempted to skip straight to Discover or Design, start here (75)
“The question I listed are part of my practice of calling in, which I think means inviting someone to think differently about their words and actions, instead of explicitly telling them off in front of the group or online. When calling people in, generally helps to replace instructions with invitations - to encourage people to consider the feelings and experiences of the people who are harmed by the comment or action. It can also help to switch between talking to an individual and engaging the wider group to create social pressure for someone to shift their attitude or behavior” (114)
Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work
I found out about this book from Van Neistat, one of my favorite makers and storytellers (I highly recommend his YouTube channel for some highly crafted and honest videos). This book harkened me back to my high school days; I was lucky enough to go to a school that deeply incorporated shop class and emphasized the value of learning through one’s hands. The topics of reality, manual work, devices vs things, form giving, and our abilities to form good judgements kept me stuck to the pages of this book.
"In schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and underserving of their fully attention and engagement...Without the opportunity to learning through the hands, the world remains abstract, and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged." -Doug Stowe, Wisdom of the Hands (Blog), 10.6.06
"The man who works recognizes his own product in the World that has actually been transformed by his work: he recognizes himself in it, he sees in it his own human reality, in it he discovers and reveals to others the objective reality of his humanity, of the originally abstract and purely subjective idea he has of himself." (15)
"People may inhabit very different worlds even in the same city, according to their wealth or poverty. Yet we all live in the same physical reality, ultimately, and owe a common debt to the world" (17)
"The current educational regime is based on a certain view about what kind of information is important: "knowing that," as opposed to "knowing how." This corresponds roughly to universal knowledge versus the kind that comes from individual experience. If you know that something is the case, then this proposition can be stated from anywhere. In fact, such knowledge aspires to a view from nowhere." (162)
Things that make us smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine
I read this book for a product design studio class back in college. This book served as a backdrop for a number of great class discussions. I found this book more practical and educational than Don Norman’s other more famous book “The Design of Everyday Things.” Our discussions in class revolved around what it means for something to be intuitive, designing systems, hard vs soft technology, and fitting artifacts to people instead of the other way around.
“Humans need a meaningful, accessible representation: sounds, sights, touch, organized in meaningful, interpretable ways. The result, however, is that we are ever more dependent upon the design of our devices to make the information visible and to make the artifact usable.”
“As a result, the two together—the powers of the machine and the powers of the person—complement one other, leading to the possibility that the combination will be more fruitful and powerful than either alone. If we design things properly, that is.”
“Based on what we know today, the environment conducive to optimal experience should: Provide a high intensity of interaction and feedback Have specific goals and established procedures Motivate Provide a continual feeling of challenge, one that is neither so difficult as to create a sense of hopelessness and frustration nor so easy as to produce boredom Provide a sense of direct engagement, producing the feeling of directly experiencing the environment, directly working on the task Provide appropriate tools that fit the user and task so well that they aid and do not distract Avoid distractions and disruptions that intervene and destroy the subjective experience”
“Technologies are not neutral. They affect the course of society, aiding some actions, impeding others, independent of the morality or necessity of those actions. Technology also has its side effects, both physical and mental. Technology can aid as much as it can detract. It really is up to us, both as individuals and as a society, to decide which course we shall take.”
“How have we increased memory, thought, and reasoning? By the invention of external aids: It is things that make us smart.”
Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed by Men
This book dives deep into our societal bias to favor men in all of our designs from the expected and unexpected; traffic patterns, to crash tests dummy’s, medicine, and taxes. How can we claim to be creating ‘for everyone’ when our scientific and medical testing, product development, and policy creation omit factors of gender and sex? Our cultural default to not disaggregate data based on sex and instead think of males as representative for the entirety of humanity masks needs, narratives, and violence against half of the world’s population. This informative book is deeply frustrating. Reading the overt (and covert) ways in which women are overlooked in designs illuminates the vital need to close the representation gap.
“The result of this deeply male-dominated culture is that the male experience, the male perspective, has come to be seen as universal, while the female experience - that of half of the global population, after all - is seen as well, niche. It is because what is male is universal that when a professor at Georgetown University named her literature course 'White Male Writers', she hit headlines, while the numerous courses on 'female writers' pass unremarked (12).”
“There is a tendency (as ever) to blame the women rather than male-biased design. But male-biased design is in fact exactly what the problem is here (48).”
“Iceland has also been named by The Economist as the best country to be a working woman. And while this is of course something to celebrate, there is also reason to take issue with The Economist's phrasing, because if Iceland's strike does anything it is surely to expose the term 'working woman' as a tautology. There is no such thing as a woman who doesn't work. There is only a woman who isn't paid for her work (70).
“That the myth of meritocracy survives in the face of such statistics is testament to the power of the male default: in the same way that men picture a man 80% of the time they think of a 'person', it's possible that many men in the tech industry simply don't notice how male-dominated it is. But it's also testament to the attractiveness of a myth that tells the people who benefit from it that all their achievements are down to their own personal merit. It is no accident that those who are likely to believe in the myth of meritocracy are young, upper-class, white Americans (95).”
“Closing the gender data gap will not magically fix all the problems faced by women, whether or not they are displaced. That would require a wholesale restructuring of society and an end to male violence. But getting to grips with the reality that gender-neutral does not automatically mean gender-equal would be an important start. And the existence of sex-disaggregated data would certainly make it much harder to keep insisting, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, that women's needs can safely be ignored in pursuit of a greater good (309).”
Giorgia Lupi, Stefanie Posavec
I’ve had this book on my wish-list since college and am excited to have finally gotten around to it. I had seen a recording from a talk with the authors before; two informational designers living in New York and London respectively decided to exchange weekly postcards. Each week would have a topic that each designer would collect human data on and then painstakingly transcribe a visualization of the data by hand, using simple pens and pencils. While this hand made process takes longer to make, the removal of a computer instills a whole new element to a normally synthetic process. In the age of big data, this book shows what happens when a human draws every single data point by hand; a remarkable human story emerges, revealing deeper our deeper humanities. The imperfect nature of ordering information elegantly shows the human and a deeper story, untinged by computation.
I do not have a good set of quotes for this book but I will link to the book’s website where you can explore their visual studies.
Thank you for reading this weeks recommendations. I intend to add to this list and will share more books on design process in the future.
For next week, I’ll be sharing my favorite books on a different type of design: on the unseen, ordinary, and quietly transformational things that are all around us. Stay tuned for more