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The first mainstream book to explore how the problem-solving, creative and insightful powers of Bruce Mau and the world’s other great designers can be applied to our everyday lives and businesses — and spawn creative epiphanies around the world.
What can be learned from great designers? How can design improve our lives? Answers abound in Glimmer. In the cutting-edge studios of Canadian design phenomenon Bruce Mau and other visionary designers, everything is ripe for reinvention ...
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The first mainstream book to explore how the problem-solving, creative and insightful powers of Bruce Mau and the world’s other great designers can be applied to our everyday lives and businesses — and spawn creative epiphanies around the world.
What can be learned from great designers? How can design improve our lives? Answers abound in Glimmer. In the cutting-edge studios of Canadian design phenomenon Bruce Mau and other visionary designers, everything is ripe for reinvention — including how businesses function, children learn and communities thrive. Warren Berger, with the full cooperation of Mau, tallies and explores the deceptively simple principles that steer design’s vanguard — “ask stupid questions,” “begin anywhere” and “make hope visible” — and illustrates how these and other such principles can provide the means for finding hope in these anxious times.
1. Ask Stupid Questions
What is design? Who is Bruce Mau? And, by the way, does it have to be a lightbulb?
1.1 The Joke That Explains Progress
As Dean Kamen tells the story, it started when he went out to get ice cream. "So I'm at the mall," says Kamen, who is a prominent New Englander now but who grew up in the New York City area and still speaks with the accent and clipped sentences of a New Yorker. "I'm on my way in from the parking lot, it's raining. I see a guy, in a wheelchair. He's not an old guy, he's young, fit looking—probably a vet, maybe had his leg blown off by a land mine, for all I know. But here he is, in this brand-new modern shopping center. And he can't get over the curb. He has to get help from a couple of other people, to lift his wheelchair over the curb."
Kamen raises an index finger to indicate: That's part one of the story.
"Few minutes later, I'm going by RadioShack, to get some batteries or whatever. I see the guy in the store, and now he's having trouble reaching something on the shelf. Then, as fate would have it, when I finally get around to going to the food court for my ice cream—there he is again! He's waiting to be served, but it's a high ice cream counter and he can't make eye contact. He couldn't do a basic transaction, not with any dignity anyway."
Now comes the point in the story when Kamen's design brain kicks into gear. "I'm looking at all this thinking, What a pathetic lack of progress. I mean, seriously—with all the incredible things we're doing with tech nology, what are we doing to improve this two-hundred-year-old wheelchair? And what are we doing to restore this guy's dignity? Because that's what it's about—not just mobility, it's dignity. Can't we do better than this?"
And that was that. Because once Kamen raised that question—even if initially only within the confines of his own head—it begged an answer and set in motion a chain of developments. Kamen would spend the next several years trying to resolve dynamic stabilization issues in new ways, using solidstate gyroscopes, sensors, and microprocessors to simulate human balance in a package "small enough to sit under someone's butt," he says. "Because we knew once we could do that, we could stand a guy up on two points. And once we're balanced on two points, then we can deal with climbing the curb. And if we can climb the curb, then we can take it a little further and climb stairs."
Kamen eventually did manage to do all of that with his iBOT wheelchair: The seat raises its occupant to a standing position, as the wheels intrepidly roll up and over curbs or steps. The whole complex engineering and design project was triggered by a simple human observation and an emotional reaction to it.
"That's where our ideas always seem to come from," Kamen explains. "I think what happens is, we look at the same things, the same reality, as everyone else does. But we see it a little differently. Just because something is a reality today, we know that doesn't mean it has to be a reality tomorrow. So we're constantly looking at things and asking, Why? Or why not?"
At that shopping center in New Hampshire, on a dreary, rainy evening, Kamen looked at a man in a wheelchair and saw the glimmer of possibility. But he was only able to see that by stepping back, reconsidering what he saw—and by questioning the way things are and might be.
The questions Kamen raised at the time—Why shouldn't someone in a wheelchair be able to stand and make eye contact with others? Why can't he climb curbs, or even stairs?—fit the definition of what Bruce Mau calls "stupid questions": the kind that challenge assumptions in such a fundamental way they can make the questioner seem naïve. Had Kamen asked these questions at, say, a business meeting within a company that makes wheelchairs, they very well might have elicited discreet eye-rolling and restlessness, along with a feeling that the meeting's forward momentum had ground to a halt.
But in actuality, the opposite is true. The act of questioning basic assumptions can be the first step toward reinvention and meaningful change. And it is often design's starting point.
Designers are so known for questioning that there is a joke acknowledging this tendency:
How many designers does it take to change a lightbulb?
Answer: Does it have to be a lightbulb?
Joking aside, when designers ask whether "it has to be a lightbulb," what they are doing is reframing a familiar problem or challenge in an unconventional way. Framing is a favorite term among designers, used with various meanings, but it generally refers to the way a problem or challenge is defined and laid out by a designer who intends to try to solve it. And often, the way a problem is framed will determine the solution. The problem of needing to figure out how to change that lightbulb may be reframed as a need to bring more light into the room without constantly having to change the bulb. This, in turn, may lead to putting a window in the roof to let the sun shine in.
The inclination to ask stupid questions and to frame problems in new ways (the two practices tend to go hand in hand) is a big part of what makes a good designer good, but it can also be useful behavior for just about anyone. To be able to step back, look at what surrounds you with a fresh eye, and question what is usually taken for granted is how people can change their lives, how societies or governments can retackle old problems, and how companies can regain focus or completely reinvent themselves.
Mau says that, as the economy soured in late 2008, he found he was getting an increasing number of phone calls from businesses who were discovering that in this new, difficult environment, the old formulas and models that these companies had lived by for years were no longer working. Some of them undoubtedly were hoping Mau might be able to hand them a new formula, a bit of design magic. But what these companies really must do, Mau says, is the hard work of reconsidering, which often requires that they ask themselves some very stupid (but by no means easy) questions as they try to reframe their very purpose: Why do we make the things we're making? Does anybody still need this stuff? What if we were to radically change this thing we make? Or make something else instead? Maybe we need to stop making "things" altogether and start providing something more—a service, an experience?
The questions are so fundamental that a lot of companies haven't stopped to consider them in a long time, if ever. Likewise, social services providers are using old models that are not holding up well in these times, but to adapt to a new reality, basic questions must be asked: Never mind what we're used to providing; what do senior citizens really need these days? What makes a poor child want to learn? What do homeless people do all day? And on a personal level, asking stupid questions is every bit as relevant: Where should I really be living? How can I get more done? What makes me happy?
Designers know that asking fundamental questions is not easy to do, but on the other hand, you don't have to be an expert, either. In fact, generally speaking, experts are the ones least capable of asking stupid questions, because they know too much (or so they think). Designers, on the other hand, are often in the role of "anti-experts"—they tend to come at challenges from the perspective of the outsider. In business, designers are often brought in from outside to solve a problem, but even if the designer works in-house at a company, he/she is usually expected to take an "outside" point of view—one that is more in line with the end user or customer than with the company's executives.
Designers like Mau or Paula Scher from the design firm Pentagram are used to taking on assignments that range from working for a bank one week to a hospital the next. As they jump around, they're not expected to have deep expertise in each particular industry, and in fact their lack of inside knowledge can be a great asset. "When I'm totally unqualified for a job, that's when I do my best work," explains Paula Scher, a renowned graphic designer who has worked with public theaters, children's museums, and banks (she once sketched an umbrella logo on a napkin for Citibank and, in a matter of minutes, changed the identity of one of world's most powerful financial institutions—though, alas, Scher's umbrella couldn't keep Citi from getting soaked in the end). Scher says, "If you're trying to find a new way to think about something that makes it better, it can actually hurt you to have too much experience in that particular milieu—because you understand the expectations too well. And that can cause you to limit and edit your possibilities, based on what you already know 'doesn't work.' "
But if you're inexperienced in a given area—or, to use Scher's words, "if you're a complete neophyte, a moron"—you'll tend to ask questions that elicit more profound responses. "You'll ask what would seem to be the obvious, except nobody's seriously thought about it," she says. "From ignorance, you can come up with something that is so out of left field that it has been ignored or was never considered a possibility."
Questioning and framing require that one try to observe situations or scenarios in an open, unbiased manner. Mau sees this as akin to adopting a child's view of reality, in which everything is noticed as if for the first time and it's all subject to inquiry and investigation.
It makes sense, then, that the specific question that is often most useful in this approach is the one favored by inquisitive kids everywhere: Why?
It's such a good all-purpose query that many designers have adopted it as a kind of mantra used throughout various stages of their work. The design-driven medical equipment company Modo has been known to use cue cards, placed throughout the company, to continually remind company employees—designers and nondesigners alike—to ask "why" at every stage of conducting business. And the design firm IDEO has established a methodology practice known as the Five Whys. When the company is trying to arrive at new insights on a particular issue, its design researchers ask Why? over and over, in response to every answer they get.
Asking questions, especially fundamental ones, "forces you to be honest about what you don't know," says Clement Mok, one of the early creative directors at Apple. It can also put you in an uncomfortable position. The designer George Lois relates that he has found himself in the following situation countless times: "You're in a conference room and everybody is nodding their heads, and for some reason you're the only one who raises his hand and says, 'Wait a minute, this thing you want to do doesn't make any sense. Why the hell are you doing it this way?' It takes some guts to be the one to raise your hand. It's easier to nod."
As Mau points out, "The fear for so many people is that, in asking these kinds of questions, they will seem naïve. But naïve is a valuable commodity in this context. Naïve is what allows you to try to do what the experts say can't be done."
The recent history of design innovation backs up Mau's assertion. So many stories of design breakthroughs, including the ones featured in this book, have begun with someone asking (much as Kamen did), Why does it have to be that way?
Two decades ago, when Sam Farber observed that his wife was having trouble peeling carrots because of her arthritic hands, Farber wondered why no one had designed a peeler with a handle that was easier to grip. Among the established makers of potato peelers and other low-cost kitchen items, this would be perceived as a "stupid question," and not in Mau's positive sense. After all, who could afford to cater to a small segment of customers with arthritis? And why would any customer pay a premium for an item no one cared about to begin with? Why bother to redesign something as mundane as a potato peeler?
Those last few questions, it turned out, were not stupid—they were just plain dumb. The new peeler introduced by Farber, with its thick, contoured, and tactile handle, appealed to a wide audience and propelled his new company, OXO Good Grips, to the top of the industry. Anyone who has used OXO products can probably guess that considerable design effort goes into making them feel so right you actually want to pick them up and do chores. Design principles involving ergonomics and usability inform every ridged surface or curved handle. But the real starting point for the peeler and so many of the company's products can be traced to someone asking why a common device couldn't be made a little bit better or why an everyday task couldn't be made easier.
Farber's experience also illustrates that these basic questions can be inspired simply by looking at what's going on around you, as was the case with Kamen and the wheelchair, or with Deborah Adler, who observed that her grandparents were having trouble using their medicine bottles and came up with an ingenious redesign.
Invariably, these innovations—whether achieved by seasoned professional designers or amateurs—weren't born in research labs, as one might expect. They started with questions first formed in kitchens, bathrooms, ice cream parlors, and other places where someone observed a human need and wondered why it wasn't being met. Once the question is raised, then begins the journey of envisioning, building, and refining an answer—the process of design.
That process will be examined and explored through many of the stories in the book, but it may help, at the outset, to have some basic context on design and designers. And that requires asking, up front, a few stupid questions about design itself, such as: How does it affect us? How are designers different from the rest of us? And the stupidest question of all: What is design?
1.2 A Word That Needs Its Own Dictionary
When asked to define design, some of its practitioners have a hard time explaining what they do every day of their lives. No wonder their mothers are bewildered, to say nothing of designers' children: "All my kids know about what I do," says designer Alex Isley, "is that daddy plays with crayons all day."
The problem is not a lack of good working definitions, but rather an overabundance of them. For example, when designer Milton Glaser was asked for one, he offered up three (all good ones, but still—couldn't he have picked just one?). The facing page, designed by IA Collaborative, can be thought of as a top-twenty list of definitions, but the chart easily could have been expanded to a hundred or more.
That there would be so many definitions is understandable when you consider that the activity of designing takes so many forms and spans so many disciplines: fashion, graphic design, industrial or product design, Web design, interior design. The term has been picked up by landscape gardeners, cosmetic dentists, even life coaches (now called lifestyle designers).
Then, too, there's the nonprofessional usage: If you rearrange your garage in a somewhat creative way, you're designing on some level. "As a society, we actually use the word more intelligently in the colloquial sense," Mau notes—which is to say, if you ask professionals what design is, they can get tangled up in all those overlapping disciplines, but a nondesigner usually gets that it's about figuring out something in advance and making a thoughtful plan to do it.
In a word, a design is a plan, but Paula Scher takes that definition to a loftier level, declaring that design is "the art of planning." One of Scher's creative partners at the Pentagram design firm, Michael Bierut, adds some specificity, defining design as "a plan to make something, for a specific purpose, with a specific audience or user in mind." Of the many definitions, perhaps the most specific one was offered by the quirky design star Stefan Sagmeister, who decreed that design is "the expression of an idea, process, or system for the betterment of client interests and human loco motion, not excluding the recent trend of lower x-height among Dutch typographers."
The definitions range pretty far, but the common threads seem to involve planning, purpose, and intent. And this brings up an important point about the distinction between art and design. Design can certainly be artful, but there's a critical aspect of it that often distinguishes it from pure art. Even the most beautifully designed objects are also usually meant to be functional; hence design becomes, in the words of writer/designer Ellen Lupton, "art that people use."
The sculptor Donald Judd gets to the hub of the difference with this line: "Design has to work. Art does not." (The painter David Hockney countered by pointing out that, conversely, "Art has to move you and design does not, unless it's a good design for a bus.")
There is a point when design fully crosses into the realm of art, becoming almost entirely about style and personal expression, with little emphasis on utility. At that point, all bets are off. In the rarefied world of "art design" (or is it "design art"?) most of the sturdy principles of design—all of those concerns having to do with human need and human nature, rooted in meticulous planning and refinement, all geared to getting something right or making it better—go out the window, along with lots of dollar bills. A chair ordi narily is designed to keep someone's backside from crashing to the floor, but if it's a chair sold to collectors at the design fair at the Venice Biennale, chances are no one will sit in it—so those structural principles no longer matter. Obviously, art design can be beautiful and expressive and delightful, which is a purpose in itself; but for the most part, it is separate from the kind of design that is engaged in the struggle to solve human problems—which is the kind of design that is the focus of this book.
There's a disconnect between the way serious designers define design and the way the popular culture defines it. Notwithstanding all of those definitionsreferring to purpose and progress, when you examine the ways design is usually discussed in the media, the emphasis is overwhelmingly on style. Just check the television listings and the magazine racks. In terms of the former, there has been an explosion in recent years in the number of TV shows with "design" as a theme, but most of them feature fashion designers and interior decorators.
A few years back, the journalist Virginia Postrel wrote an interesting and persuasive book, The Substance of Style, which argued in favor of style and showed the importance of aesthetics in helping people enjoy their lives. Postrel's point: Style isn't merely superficial—it matters, deeply. That's true enough, but the trouble is that it often matters too much, particularly to the people making design decisions. Many designers have spent the better part of their careers trying to convince corporate clients, and the world at large, that design is not only about appearances.
Mau sometimes refers to the "tyranny of the visual" when discussing popular perceptions of design. He doesn't blame anyone in particular for this; he believes the emphasis on style evolved as a natural response to designed objects. "It's understandable, given the history of design as the shaping of found material," he says. Through the years, artisans and creators took hold of materials at hand, such as wood, stone, and clay, "and by shaping that matter we generated utility and delight," Mau says. "And the form, the shape of things, was the principal method by which design produced its wonders."
In the business world, the word design has been almost synonymous with style. Until recently, designers were tasked with making products look better and creating eye-catching packaging and communications. All well and good—those are certainly important functions. But the problem, at least in the minds of some designers, was that "style" became a kind of ghetto for them. Being associated with appearances made it difficult for designers to exert influence when key business decisions were made about what kinds of products should be produced and how they should work. That is beginning to change: "Clients used to come to us and say, 'Can you make this thing a little nicer or better?' " says Davin Stowell, founder of the firm Smart Design. "Now they're coming to us and asking, 'What should we be making?' "
The reason cosmetic design was emphasized in business was that it helped move merchandise—offering a way to take mass-produced goods that were similar to one another and spiff them up so they'd stand out. It could make "this year's model" seem new and improved, even if it really wasn't. And if a product was designed in a way that made it look better, you might enjoy it more and might even come to believe that it was improved—all because of its appearance. As has been noted by Postrel, as well as by the design guru Donald Norman and others, the aesthetic aspects of design can go beyond superficiality in terms of impact on people. Norman, in particular, has theorized that style is interlinked with functionality and that it all comes together to influence us on three distinct levels.
1.3 A) "I Lust After It" B) "It Is Smart But I'm Smarter" C) "It Completes Me"
Norman is an astute observer of design who teaches at Northwestern University and heads up the Nielsen Norman design consulting firm, which has worked with Apple and other leading design-driven companies. A cognitive scientist by training, he wandered into design after first wading into a disaster. Norman had been called upon in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident to study the situation from the perspective of a brain scientist. It was hoped that he could shed light on why the power plant's workers seemingly had failed to react adequately to the crisis as it was unfolding. But Norman found that the fault lay not in the neural paths and synapses of the workers—it was in the poorly designed buttons and graphics of the plant's control systems.
From then on, Norman became hooked on the science of design. He has been studying, ever since, the ways that people react to designed objects and environments. His three-level theory holds that design appeals to us on:
• The visceral level, wherein we respond mostly to appearances.
• The behavioral level, where usability comes more into play (Do we feel at ease operating something? Can we "master" it? Does it seem useful?).
• The reflective level, which is tied up with issues of identity, self-worth, and intellectual appeal—as in: Do I want to be associated with this product? Do I feel good about owning it? Can I tell stories about it and impress others?
Which of the three levels is the most powerful? "If any one of those is going to trump the others, it's the reflective level," Norman says. "It's all about the image we project. People will go out of their way to buy things that fulfill and enhance that image."
When a design connects on multiple levels it can become a phenomenon, like Apple's iPod or iPhone. In the case of the iPod, Norman notes that the product is actually far from perfect from a functional standpoint. "People have trouble turning it on and off, and they get frustrated because they can't replace the battery," Norman points out. But they forgive all that because on the visceral level the product is sleekly attractive, while on a functional level it allows people to easily manage their music, and on the reflective level we all want to be part of the "different and smarter" club that Apple rep resents.
To boil down the three levels a bit, the ideal response to a designed product might go something like this: 1) "Wow! How cool looking is that?" 2) "Hey, this is easy. I can do this. And I can picture myself using this every day." 3) "I can't wait to show this off to my friends."
As Norman says, from a psychological standpoint number three may be the most powerful level. But in terms of opening the door and getting things started, visceral appeal is critical. And this is where aesthetics plays its biggest role. Robert Wong, who served as the design director at Starbucks as the chain was becoming a phenomenon, compares the visceral appeal of design to sexual attraction. Beautiful design, Wong says, "makes the medial prefrontal cortex light up, just like sex." And it's not just a matter of visual impact: Sound, touch, and even smell can be utilized by designers to get the hormones racing. Starbucks learned early on that the sound and smell of the beans being ground actually made the cash register ring more.
Some of our visceral responses to design seem to be hardwired. According to Moshe Bar, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Harvard Medical School, research suggests that we simply respond better, on a gut level, to smooth, curved, and symmetrical designs as opposed to rough, angular, jagged, or uneven shapes. Bar contends that there's something very primal in all this: When we're around smoothly designed, aesthetically pleasing objects, we feel less threatened. Conversely, rough edges and sharp contouring tend to increase activity in the amygdala area of the brain, which responds to anything perceived as a possible cause for concern. Cluttered, messy designs also can be unsettling. "The brain doesn't like uncertainty," Bar says, "and if there's too much going on in a product's design, we may associate that confusion with possible danger."
It's logical that style and aesthetics would be important at the visceral level, but what's more surprising is this: If something is beautiful, it may be easier to use. That, at least, is what has been suggested by studies (cited in Norman's book Emotional Design) showing that people do a better job of figuring out and using products that look good—apparently because an aesthetically pleasing object causes you to relax more as you use it and also to be more patient and more creative as you try to figure it out. If something looks like it's badly or cheaply designed, we're more apt to throw it against the wall than to work through frustrations.
That's a good lesson for designers engaged in all kinds of endeavors, including would-be world-changers: Even if you're trying to design something profound and noble, it still benefits from being sexy. When Yves Behar designed the XO laptop for children in the developing world, he slaved over the cute and colorful appearance of it. Behar wanted kids who were absolutely clueless about computers to covet these devices before even knowing how to switch them on.
Once they do turn it on, that's when things really start to get interesting from a design standpoint. Because at this next level, the behavioral one, the designer must somehow come to terms with other people's needs and capabilities—and then design something that matches up to those needs and capabilities. The result, at times, can seem to be the work of someone with ESP, though in fact it involves at least as much science and sweat as intuition. Designers rely on precise principles such as mapping to guide the user of a product or service in the right directions, and they build in "forgiveness" (a wonderful name for a design principle) to help us avoid mistakes and recover easily from them. So many of these neat tricks are completely invisible to the user. But that just adds to the appeal because it allows us to believe, as we use well-designed products, that we're the ones who've mastered the complexities and figured it all out. For a few moments at least, we're in control and the world makes sense.
1.4 Graduating From Objects To Objectives
In marveling at how designers, at their best, can make things work so well and so easily, one can't help asking a provocative (and, yes, slightly stupid) question: Why can't everything be designed as well as an iPod? And this is where Bruce Mau reenters the picture, because he believes that, in fact, everything can.
Some time ago, Mau pretty much stopped designing objects (books had been his object of choice for years) in part because he began to feel design offered greater possibilities when it came to changing or "transforming" what already exists, as opposed to making shiny new geegaws for the shelves of design stores.
In the design world, there has always been "a constant tension between inventing and improving," says the designer Valerie Casey from the firm IDEO. Invention has tended to bring more money and glory to designers—indeed, the pressure's always on to create the next hot-selling product, and that won't change. But at the same time, there's a growing recognition of the need for smart redesign, or designed improvement—whether in existing products (such as by making them more sustainable), in companies and how they operate, in social services, or, generally, in the way the world works.
What's interesting is that a lot of the same principles that apply to designing "stuff " also apply to this other category of design—the design of improvements or solutions. In both cases, there is the same need to start by questioning conventional wisdom and accepted practices; the same imperative to uncover what it is that people most need (even if they don't know they need it) and also what they're likely to respond to; the same practices of creating visual models or physical prototypes of new ideas, and then refining those based on feedback.
But this new strain of design—which sometimes goes by the currently popular term "transformation design" or by Mau's own branded version of it, "Massive Change"—tends to be grander in scale and more complex than basic product design. Perhaps the biggest difference is that it calls upon designers to move beyond creating "things" and to begin orchestrating "experiences."
One could argue that designers have always been in the business of creating experiences. The very best "object" designers, from Charles Eames designing furniture to Raymond Loewy making household appliances, understood that they were, on some level, designing the experience of living with an object. Certainly, they sought to empathize with the user, to understand the context in which the product might be used, and even to direct the user's experience somewhat by building in certain intuitive features.
But there is a world of difference between designing a comfortable chair and, for example, redesigning the way companies can make their practices more sustainable, or the way hospital stays can be improved, or the way cities can transport people more efficiently. While the design of the chair results in something tangible and sturdy (unless it's one of those fancy Biennale chairs), the efforts of transformation designers can yield far more amorphous results. But the payoff, if and when it works, is potentially huge.
As Mau and other transformation designers try to push the limits of what design can do and what it encompasses, that basic question What is design? gets harder to answer—as does the question What does a designer do? Not everyone is happy about this. As the transformation design trend first started to take hold in the United Kingdom a few years ago, Mike Dempsey at the Royal Designers for Industry trade group complained to a British newspaper that the term designer was being stretched and "abused." Dempsey pleaded, "Can we please have our name back?" In the United States, Pentagram's Michael Bierut has lamented the trend, wherein, he wrote, "Design is presented as a kind of transformative cure-all, with the designer as scold to tell you What You're Doing Wrong."
The term scold doesn't quite fit Mau, and he certainly doesn't claim to have all the answers—he has a lot more questions than answers. Still, it is fair to wonder just what kind of person feels qualified to take on a redesign of the world. Just who are these people to tell us what we truly want and how we really ought to be doing things?
1.5 Invasion Of The T-Shaped People
The designer Milton Glaser tells a story about his childhood that provides an insight into how designers tend to see the world around them. The young Glaser fell ill for an extended period of time and was bedridden. "Every morning," he recounts, "my mother would bring in a wooden board and a big lump of clay. And I would spend the day making complete villages—I would have this vista in front of me. Then, at the end of the day, I would take a mallet and pound it all back into a big lump of clay—excited with the prospect that I'd have to do it all over the next day. I think that was essential to my survival, because it gave me something to look forward to: Each day I got to recreate the world."
It's not uncommon to find designers who grew up constructing their own worlds, sometimes as young solo inventors tinkering in the basement. For instance, as a teenager Yves Behar wanted to combine skiing and surfing in one piece of equipment, so he created a board that could windsurf on frozen lakes. The maverick British designer Thomas Heatherwick was, by age six, making sketches of a toboggan with its own built-in suspension system because, he explained years later, "I didn't see why my bum had to hurt." Dean Kamen designed audio/video light shows in his parents' basement (he was so good at it that while still a teenager he was hired by New York museums to design their light shows).
But designing professionally is usually not a solitary occupation—the designer, unlike a solo artist, must meet with clients and collaborate with coproducers of projects—and so even those designers who start out as somewhat introverted young creators usually turn outward as adults. It makes for a dichotomous breed: They are the cool nerds, the plugged-in outsiders.
The best designers seem to be interested in everything, to the extent that it can make them seem unfocused. John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design and a renowned designer himself, says that through college and his early career, "I was doing so many different things"—Maeda was interested in graphic design, computer science, physics—"my teachers would say, 'John, just do one thing.' It's the curse of the curious. It's seen as being wrong somehow."
But it's not wrong for designers, because, in fact, they need to be generalists given the scope and range of the challenges that are brought to them. As Pentagram's Bierut puts it, "Not everything is about design, but design is about everything."
Even with all their hopping around, most designers are trained in a particular design skill set—say, graphic design or industrial design. According to IDEO's chief executive Tim Brown, the best designers are what he calls "T-shaped people." This means they start out with deep interest and expertise in one skill—that's the vertical base of the T—and then, as they blossom as designers, they branch out into many different areas of knowledge. Throughout their careers, Brown says, both parts of the T should keep growing together. "So this means that, ideally, people might come to IDEO as, say, an 8-point T and gradually become a 64-point T."
The broadening of the top of the T becomes increasingly important in the new world of transformation design, according to Brown. "To respond to the complexity of design problems today, what's required is not one person working alone in a studio—it's more likely to be interdisciplinary teams, and those people need to be able to work effectively together," he says. "What we've found is, if someone has an enthusiasm or curiosity about many different disciplines, then they can be more flexible, more empathetic, and more engaged with the world."
As T-shaped people venture wide and dip into many different milieus, the empathy cited by Brown enables them to view things from the perspective of others. But at the same time, they're always seeing the world through the meticulous eye of a designer. They can't help it: Everywhere they look designers see design, in all its glory and, more often, with all its flaws. Once, when the designer/architect Michael Graves found himself laying on a gurney in a hospital, the words that came out of his mouth were: "I don't want to die here—it's too ugly."
1.6 The Boy Who Jumped Over the Fence
In many ways, Bruce Mau fits to a T the prototypical design personality that Brown has described. Which is not to say that there is anything typical about Mau's background. As he points out, "I am probably one of the few designers you'll meet who can put a pig in the freezer for you if you need it."
Mau grew up on a small family farm just outside the nickel-mining town of Sudbury, several hours north of Toronto, in one of Ontario's colder latitudes. While his stepfather toiled in the mines, Mau and four sisters worked the farm, which had no running water in the winter. Life in Sudbury was "cold, harsh, nasty," Mau says.
From as early as he could recall, Mau wasn't interested in the same things as everyone else. "I didn't like to shoot things," he says, and when it came to his athletic prowess, "the hockey gene skipped a generation." He did like photography, art, and science.
Away from the farm, Mau's place of refuge was a student science lab at the local high school, where he buried himself in projects such as making his own radio. He figured he'd be a scientist. "But one day," he says, "as I was playing with a homemade radio I thought, 'You know, I just don't want to do this forever.' So I put the radio down and went to the guidance officeand said, 'I want to go to art school.' " The counselor told Mau that because he hadn't taken any art classes, it was too late. "I said, 'What do you mean it's too late? I'm fifteen years old—surely my fate can't be sealed!' So they let me enroll in a special art program downtown."
Mau stayed in high school an extra year, just taking art classes, and found a mentor in a sixty-five-year-old teacher, Jack Smith, who was in his last year before retirement. "I didn't know it at the time," Mau says, "but he was what Buckminster Fuller would call a 'comprehensivist'—he loved all the arts and sciences." Mau was soon doing his own color photography and printing, drawing, ceramics, filming, and typography. What hooked Mau on graphic design was the school's old one-color Heidelberg offset press; Mau refurbished it and used it to create his own four-color prints. "It was the most incredible year," he recalls. "I had complete freedom to work on whatever I wanted, alwaystrying something new. Years later I was thinking about that experience and I realized that the whole idea of my work comes from that. It's like I've been re-creating that last year of high school in my studio ever since."
On the strength of those four-color prints made on the one-color press, Mau managed to get into Toronto's Ontario College of Art. He had never set foot in a city before going to the college in Toronto, but he wasted no time getting out of Sudbury. (Years later, after he'd become a well-known Canadian designer, his hometown would invite him back—they wanted to know if he could help redesign a dreary old mining town that couldn't keep its young people from moving away. Mau accepted the invitation and is now trying to transform the place of his youth.)
After eagerly fleeing to Toronto, Mau didn't last long at the art college. He got into trouble for skipping his classes so that he could sit in on whatever other class happened to interest him more, including advanced courses. Then he dropped out altogether and drifted overseas, to London, where, owing to a connection and his impressive portfolio, he landed a job at Pentagram. One of the most prestigious international design firms, Pentagram represents a kind of creative nirvana in the design world. Formed as a collective by a group of the world's top designers, it has expanded greatly but continues to be run by a core group of star designers. People have spent the better part of their entire careers at Pentagram, never choosing to look elsewhere. As for Mau, he lasted a year and a half.
Mau says that while Pentagram did great work, the place felt too corporate to him. There was one other thing that bothered him. The firm's managing partners sat at desks that were at a higher level than the desks of the other designers. Describing this many years later in the kitchen of his home, Mau drew a picture to show a high desk hovering over a low desk. "It was like something out of Dickens," he said as he sketched.
Mau may have been extra sensitive to this because he'd become politicized in reaction to the Thatcher government, during the time of the Falklands War. He felt designers ought to be challenging government policies and practices that were, to Mau's view, unfair and even oppressive.
In this early stage of his career, Mau was already beginning to question whether he even wanted to be a graphic designer. When he was among designers who'd devoted their lives to the craft, he says, he couldn't help feeling that "they'd done a Faustian deal." He also comments that when he was putting in long hours in those days, "doing corporate stuff that had no meaning, I kind of felt as if I was designing my own prison."
By this time, there was a pattern emerging in Mau's life, and, having a designer's eye, he spotted it. He had a strong, maybe even irrational, resistance to being fenced in—whether in the town of Sudbury or in science or in a structured academic program, or in a corporate environment or even in a single discipline of design.
He returned to Toronto full of "stupid questions." How can a designer make a difference in people's lives? Can design do more than just sell things on behalf of a client? And above all, How does one keep from getting bored? Mau concluded, fairly quickly, that if he was going to find a design studio that was right for someone like him, he'd have to design it himself.
SECTION I. UNIVERSAL
1. Ask stupid questions What is design? Who is Bruce Mau? And, by the way, does it have to be a lightbulb?
2. Jump fences How do designers connect, reinvent, and recombine? And what makes them think they can do all these things?
3. Make hope visible The importance of picturing possibilities and drawing conclusions
SECTION II. BUSINESS
4. Go deep How do we figure out what people need—before they know they need it?
5. Work the metaphor Realizing what a brand or business is really about—then bringing it to life through designed experiences
6. Design what you do Can the way a company behaves be designed?
SECTION III. SOCIAL
7. Face consequences Coming to terms with the responsibility to design well and recognizing what will happen if we don't
8. Embrace constraints Design that does "more with less" is needed more than ever in today's world
SECTION IV. PERSONAL
9. Design for emergence Applying the principles of transformation design to everyday life
10. Begin anywhere Why small actions are more important than big plans
The Glimmerati The Glimmer Glossary Resources Notes Acknowledgments Index