This is the first in a series of reviews of books that discuss design, design thinking, innovation and applied creativity. We begin this series by looking at The Shape of Design, by Frank Chimero (2012).
Frank Chimero’s book The Shape of Design, provides its readers with insight into the minds of one of the more creative, flexible and prolific designers operating in public discourse on design. The book is unique in that its genesis was funded through Kickstarter, the crowd funding site on the Web. There was clearly enough passionate readers out there to see this self-published book come to light and reading through the text I suspect that those early investors are not disappointed with the results.
Chimero describes the book like this: “The Shape of Design is a book about design as a method to plan and create change. It documents the hidden steps, methods, and thoughts of the creative process to produce a field guide for the emerging skillset: improvising, creating frameworks, storytelling, and delighting audiences. It’s a handbook that explores the qualities that make for great design so we may dream big, apply the lessons to our processes, then go get our hands dirty to shape this world.”
This book was a wonderful read, but this description sells something different than what is written. The Shape of Design is much less a handbook and more of a meditation on the creative process that designers undertake. This is part reflective practice and part memoir, but fully instructive to those interested in learning more about what design is, but also what it can be and how to think about it.
Chimero begins the book with a question and answer: “What is the marker of good design? It moves…Design gains value as it moves from hand to hand; context to context; need to need. If all of this movement harmonizes, the work gains a life of its own, and turns into a shared experience that enhances life and inches the world closer to its full potential.” (p.XIII).
It is the designers task to organize and arrange movement in a manner that points it in a direction that aspires to a desirable future. Design is about envisioning this future and building upon the past work of others to shape the direction forward while the present is moving.
From this introduction Chimero takes us through discussion of the shape of this movement like an opera, staged in three parts: 1) The Song, 2) The In-Between Spaces, and 3) The Opening.
The first chapter focuses the reader on the development of point-of-view with Chimero advocating that designers must be intentional about their perspectives and that this comes from an ongoing dialogue between the designer and their work. This dialogue results less from a question of How design is done, but Why it is done. The question of Why “unlocks a new form of beauty by making choices observable so they can be discussed and considered” (p.25).
Asking Why questions brings the intention of design into full view for others to scrutinize and observe. From this I derive that we are makers at heart and sharing those creations is part of what makes us human, thus design is a vehicle to connecting us to that humanity and asking Why is one of the vehicles towards bringing us closer to it.
Working With Limits
In Chapter 3, Chimero builds on this theme and looks at the role of improvisation and creation. One of the case studies he highlights is the legendary recording of Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, which was completed in two takes with only loose notes guiding the role of each musician. The result was one of the most unique and celebrated jazz albums of all time.
In contrary to many writers, Chimero speaks to the benefits of limitations and how they serve the design process and help the designer to create better products. Limitations “narrow a big process into smaller, more understandable places to explore” (p. 45), something that is useful when tackling novel or wicked problems. Limitations not only shape the design, but also provide the impetus for creativity to begin flowing by suggesting the first few steps towards what a final product could look like.
Connection with Systems Thinking
In Chapter 4, Chimero speaks to three common traits of design: the message, the tone of the message, and the form. A successful design is seen has having “all three elements working in co-dependence to achieve a whole greater than the sum of its parts” (p. 49), thus making systems thinking manifest. This understanding of the systems that designers find themselves is critical. Skilled designers draw from their experience a knowledge of the domains that define the systems they work in. Although ‘systems thinking’ is not named specifically, the language that Chimero uses including the previous quote point to an understanding of the concept in practice, even if not in name. He emplores designers to learn about the full system in which they operate.
To illustrate how this thinking fits with craft, the example of the Catalonian restaurant elBulli and its former executive chef Ferran Adria is presented. It is here that the question of Why in design in brought forth again, unconsciously evoking the design method of the 5-Why’s as a means of tapping into the root of motivation for design. In the case of elBulli, that Why was to create sensory delights that the world had never seen before.
In the second section of the book, Chimero focuses his gaze upon the designer’s intent and the potential outcomes from that. To that end, design is seen as a bridge between things, made visible by illuminating the white space around it. This space however, is dynamic and changes constantly provoking a need for designers to be comfortable with change and exchange. For example, design bridges between art and commerce, connecting creative expression to functional objects that add social value. Design is therefore defined by the quality of the connections it facilitates.
These connections can have widespread impact on the society around it and Chimero is quick to point out that design creates the cultures that define the very expectations that we have of design in the first place. Following his earlier argument that could read as designers ought to be systems thinkers, the notion that these systems are often complex and that what is designed must acknolwedge this complexity is also paid.
On page 77 Chimero writes: “the best design acts as a form of loosely composed, responsive movement, and seeks to have all of the adjacent elements sway together“. One can read into this that designing for emergence and creating those adjacent possibles that complexity scientists claim is the seat of much innovation is what Chimero is subtlely suggesting. Design is not a passive artifact, rather it is a tool to understanding, but also revealing them and shaping them.
From there, the book shifts towards more specific, classical design critique and explanation looking at such things as wording, interaction design object placement, and examples of good and bad design from the world of digital technologies. From this section the most important lesson is that any layout, iconongraphy, or typeface must consider empathy as its truest anchor in order to generate designs that delight.
Design and the Art of Giving
The book concludes by paying homage to the role of giving, creating, receiving and the interplay between the three. It is a commentary on how great design gives to its audience and takes from it as well. Milton Glaser’s iconic I [heart] NY logo became something owned by New Yorkers and promptly forgot the designer. To this end, that ‘forgetting’ of the designer is in part what made it great. With all due respect to Milton Glaser, he is not want for attention or recognition. It is telling that perhaps his most widely recognized logo is something seen as invisibly attributed to him but branded solidly on to its client, New York City.
It is the legacy of design and how it creates the worlds we inhabit that is its gift to those worlds and something Frank Chimero seeks to give to us through this book. He ends this gracious, well-written, and insightful volume as it began with the title: “The world shapes us, and we get to shape the world” (p. 122).
It is in contemplating this shape and striving to craft it in ways that serve our society that design shapes us as much as we shape it.