Great design ideas from underrepresented places

book, research, world

You can see in the book outline, that the way I’m telling the story of design is structured around topics and lessons. Yet with the title How Design Makes the World, I’m trying to live up to the use of that last word.

I’ve ben searching for ways to include stories from diverse places. And use examples that aren’t the common ones designers use to teach design over and over again. Ideally these design stories touch on many kinds of design at the same time: interaction/usability, aesthetics and solving an interesting problem in an interesting way. I’m hoping there are anthropologists, architects and world travelers who have obvious references that design circles are not aware of.

Currently, the stories and examples come from 18 countries and 5 continents. I’d like to see if I can extend this further. Here’s a rough map of what’s in the current draft:

They include (in a mixed pile of cities and nations): Paris, NYC, London, Austria, Germany, San Francisco, New Zealand, Venice, Seattle, Pakistan, India, China, Japan, Dubai, Sweden, Croatia, Amsterdam, West Africa and Tokyo. 

Suggestions from the mailing list

I asked the good folks on the mailing list for this project (you should join!) for suggestions. Below is a list of some of what they offered:

1. Togunas, from Mali, Africa

I suggested this one myself. A toguna is a tribal building from the country of Mali. It’s a kind of community space and courthouse. It’s designed with low ceilings so that when people come to settle a dispute, they can’t stand and try to fight each other.

It’s not clear how effective it is (I’ve only been able to find limited information about togunas), but the mere intent of it is a lovely little story. I have a chapter on designing for conflict and the Toguna will likely be used as a simple example of how to design to prevent conflicts.  I learned about these from this excellent documentary on African architecture.

2. Lion Lights & Beehive fences, Kenya

Richard Turere, a teenager from a Maasai family, observed that lions stayed away when people patrolled their property at night with visible lights. He cleverly designed a simple system of flashing lights on poles that simulated what lions would see if a person was patrolling. Using solar panels and car batteries, the lion lights work all night, protecting people and livestock without much expense or effort. You can see his short TED talk on the design here.

Also see Beehive Fences, a technique for safely protecting crops from Elephants (!). Thanks Dave Cortright for these two.

Slide background

4. The Kayak, Greenland

Man sitting with legs covered in boat that tapers to a point at each end holding long, pointed, wooden pole

Kayaks were invented by Intuit and other tribes in Greenland 4000 years ago. Kayaks are popular here in Seattle, and pretty much everywhere there’s accessible water, and as many times as I’ve used and seen them I never stopped to think of who designed them and why. Compared to canoes, they’re lightweight, keep things waterproof, are lower to the water, and move faster with less effort. (Thanks Beth Robson).

5. The wonders of India

File:Chand Baori (Step-well) at Abhaneri.JPG

Several people pointed me to Chand Baori, a famous temple and well in Jaipur. I’m familiar with it, but it’s more of a visual wonder than a functional one as best I understand. It’s also not an idea that can be reused in the way I’m hoping for, for the book. There’s not much transferable knowledge or insight, other than that functional things can be beautiful too.

From my own visit to India, I’m quite fond of Dhobi Ghat, an amazing outdoor laundromat that involves systems of coordination at massive scale to ensure clothes get washed properly by hand and don’t get lost. But it’s not a healthy place to work, so I resist using it as an example.

There’s also Dabbawala, the fascinating system of lunch delivery used in many Indian cities, especially Mumbai. Between 175,000 and 200,000 lunch boxes are moved each day by 4,500 to 5,000 dabbawalas. It’s like Uber Eats, but they’re unionized and self-employed. I’m particularly fascinated by how their organization system, for how they make sure the right food gets to the right place at the right time. There’s even a romantic comedy about it, called The Lunchbox. I watched it (research!) and it’s good.

Mumbai Dabbawala or Tiffin Wallahs- 200,000 Tiffin Boxes Delivered Per Day.jpg

And there are many other stunning places in India, but some take quite a bit of explaining, like Jantar Mantar, an amazing set of observatory “equipment” but works mostly today as a stunningly beautiful and fascinating park. For the book I have a strong preference for designs that solve functional problems in some way, so Jantar Mantar doesn’t really qualify.

5. Dolos, South Africa

For protecting coast lines from erosion, there are few better designs than the Dolo, invented in South Africa but now used around the world. The 8 ton blocks lock together in fitting pieces which makes them sturdy and reliable. Of course there’s no real interaction with people here, so it’s more a kind of industrial architecture than a human design element, but I found reading about them fascinating nonetheless. Thanks Louis Tredoux.

Dolosse forming a protective structure against a shoreline in Cape Town, South Africa

6. What’s missing?

It’s a big map, with lots of empty space. I want to work in as many stories from underrepresented places as I can.

What other good design stories do you know of that will help me fill in the spaces here? Leave a comment. Thanks.

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What’s the one book you give to explain design?

primer books, research

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 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 first editions lack of coverage of aesthetics.

The downside for the goal of “the one book” is the book goes deep. It’s meant for someone who is going after a degree in psychology or design rather than a broad intro book. It has detailed chapters on how memory, perception, affordances and other aspects of usability, more than people who are not designers need to know. Depending on who the reader is, there are better first books.

3. How To Make Sense of Any Mess, Abby Covert

This single book is the best embodiment of practicing what designers preach in the form of a book that I know. It’s simple. It’s clear. It’s so thoughtfully written. It’s short. It’s relatable. It’s inviting. And more than anything else it leaves the reader asking many great questions and wanting to learn more. It’s more in the realm of Information Architecture, but makes that such a gentle boundary it works for anyone interested in seeing the world more like designers do.

The book’s goal is to explain information and how to organize it, which is absolutely a big part of design, but it doesn’t stretch out to the wide view of all the different kinds of design we have. If she had, I might not be working on this book at all.

4. Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug.

What’s so lovely about Krug’s approach is he truly believes in simplifying what can be a profession with lots of jargon and academic models. The title itself manifests the very goal of much of design: to remove friction. Where DMMT gets into trouble for our goals is it’s strictly about the web, it doesn’t really teach good design so much as how to reduce bad design, and it’s written at a tactical level, assuming the reader is going to be making or critiquing web pages. In some ways it’s a great first book for why design research is important, more than design itself.

Many books I’ve had recommended to me “as the one book” are just too narrow to one kind of design. The Non-Designers Design Book, by Robin Williams is purely about graphic design. Envisioning Information, by Edward Tufte, despite how often I’ve had it suggested as “the one” book, is aimed at complex information design, something few people actually do (it’s also physically hard to read: a surprisingly common problem with books by designers).

Many designers suggested books like The Elements of User Experience by Garett, Information Architecture for The Web, by Rosenfeld, Morville and Arango, Universal Principles of Design, by Lidwell and Holden, 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People, by Weinschenk, Sketching User Experience, by Buxton, but all are clearly written for professional designers or tech-savvy folks. They mostly skip over the heavy lifting of explaining what design is or why it is more important than most people think it is.

Then there are the books I love and recommend in certain cases, but have too specific an aim to be a general first book. How Buildings Learn by Brand is so good in so many ways: surprising, eye-opening, deeply researched, highly visual, intellectually provocative. But its aim is purely at architecture and how it changes, and it’s not easy for the uninitiated to generalize the lessons here. Papanek’s Design for The Real World is so good, but can’t make up its mind if it’s for designers or for everyone else. He writes very well and is funny, but switches from “manifesto for all” to tactics like “tips on brainstorming” almost every other chapter.

Take a look at my reading list. If I missed a great primer book on another subject that I should study, or you have a suggestion for something that rivals a book on the list above, please leave a comment. Thanks.

How do you explain what design is to the uninitiated?

research, teaching

The first challenge of explaining design is that it exists at all. Most people don’t think of the things they use all day as being designed by someone. They’re busy trying to get things done. For most people, things just ‘exist’ and there’s little reason to think about how they work, or how they were made or why unless they are broken.

This is part of why the profession of design is poorly understood. When it’s done well it’s hard to notice. Which perpetuates the idea that designers work either isn’t important or isn’t that hard.

I recently asked designers what example, story or tactic they use to get people over that first step. Here’s the list:

  • Buying shoes: everyone knows they have to try multiple pairs, make cost/style/comfort tradeoffs, and revise requirements as they learn (which mirrors the process designers go through)
  • The book Why Design? offered:
    • Have you ever rearranged the furniture in your room?
    • Tried to open a window but it was sealed for climate control?
    • Created a sign to find a lost pet?
    • Built a sandcastle?
    • Misunderstood a road sign?
  • Being over 40 and trying to read any fine print
  • TV remotes that are hard to use
  • Trying to use restaurant websites
  • Pick a product they like and ask which one they’d recommend – and ask what about the design of one vs. the other makes it better
  • Building a house and then changing the location of a bathroom partway through the build.

What other tactics or stories have you used to help people to start to see the world more like designers do? Leave a comment.

Research: what designed thing is the worst in history?


This was a fun twitter research question I asked last week. Of course, since people self-select and many folks who follow me work in tech or are designers the answers aren’t quite representative of what most people would say.

The way I asked the question could have been better – I mean I think that things like the Nazi regime are probably in the top 10 (and with our problems today, use of those ideas is still alive), as well as the design of our entire consumer goods industry which is the major contributor to greenhouse gases that will likely be the end of us all. But it’s natural for people to think of “designed things” as devices and gadgets, things we interact with directly at a human scale.

That said, here’s the list:

What’s missing? Leave a comment. Thanks.