Nearly five years after it launched on Kickstarter, I finally read Frank Chimero’s excellent design handbook, The Shape of Design. The Kickstarter hardcover edition looks to be beautifully crafted, so if you can get your hands on that it would be the recommended way to go. If not, do as I did and grab the free ebook from Frank’s site.

The Shape of Design

I’d recommend this book to all designers, and anyone interested in design. This is not a practical guide to becoming a better designer; instead be prepared to explore the philosophy of design through witty and metaphorical meditation. While I can see how some parts could come off as self-indulgent, it’s a quick read that is guaranteed to make you think deeper about your work.

A few quotes that resonated with me:

To be human is to tinker, to envision a better condition, and decide to work toward it by shaping the world around us.

The Shakers have a proverb that says, “Do not make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both, do not hesitate to make it beautiful.”

creativity doesn’t just serve and respond to the world around it. Instead, it actively pushes the world forward into unimaginable directions through experimentation.

We should be iterating on how we answer our needs, and not necessarily on the way our old solutions have taken shape. The root of our practice is located in the usefulness of the work, not the form that it takes.

The salesman doesn’t tell an untruth in order to get us to work towards it. Instead, he misrepresents what is in front of us so that we buy into a mirage. It’s a messy distinction, and it’s why design, rhetoric, and politics are so sticky and often mistrusted: the language we use to build the world is so close to what can be used to undermine it. Design and persuasion are manipulative, and if we have the skills to seduce others toward green pastures, we can also lead them off a cliff.

It is the designer’s job to figure out a way to have a problem show its actual self so that he can respond to the truth that has emerged. Getting to know a problem is a bit like getting to know a person: it’s a gradual process that requires patience, and there is no state of completion. You can never know the full of a problem, because there is never comprehensive information available.

All of this implies that design is a field of outcomes and consequences more than one of artifacts. The forms that designers produce are flexible, so long as the results serve the need…The products of design are more negotiations of issues and responses to problems than absolute, fixed solutions, and this provides plenty of space for different takes and perspectives.

A story is simply change over time, and the scale and scope of that change doesn’t matter so long as it has momentum. A story, in fact, doesn’t even need to go anywhere, as long as it feels like it is about to head somewhere good…There is an opportunity to tell a story whenever time can be assumed and pace can be controlled…Roger Ebert described the specifics eloquently by calling the goal “elevation,” saying, “I would consciously look for Elevation, remembering that it seems to come not through messages or happy endings or sad ones, but in moments when characters we believe in … achieve something good. … One human life, closely observed, is everyone’s life. In the particular is the universal. Empathy is the feeling that most makes us human.” Stories with elevation let us empathize.

what makes a design delightful: it empathizes with the audience and their circumstances, surprises in its delivery, and achieves a clarity in what it is trying to say or accomplish…The simplest form of delightful surprise is serendipity, when we are presented with an unexpected relevancy. Serendipity in design provides a new viewpoint that makes us look at what we are doing in new

This seems to be a foolish thing to say, but without the empathy that delightfulness requires, it’s quite easy for the designer to be short-sighted and see the design work as a set of logistical problems to overcome or creative challenges to master, rather than an opportunity to produce something that enhances someone else’s life.

We are part of a long line of people who have been tasked to shape this world in big and small ways, and the longer that line runs, the more valuable our opportunity becomes.

Design gains the ability to nourish when it acts as a gift rather than as something to create yearning. We get to close loops of desire rather than open new ones.

We are dependent on each other in this way – we finish each other’s sentences, fill one another’s needs, and help each other to become better. A person is not a closed system, they can never be fully self-sufficient. We need each other because we cannot make everything ourselves. Everything was invented, but it was not done alone, so we should revere the times we are able to fill this complementary role for others, and cherish when others do so for us. It’s the words of others that teach us to speak, the expressions of life by other people that teach us how to express ourselves. The great opportunity of design is that we are frequently afforded the privilege to fill another’s needs and desires.

I used to be a bit jaded about my work in an attempt to shield myself from the responsibility of it. I’d say, it is just a logo, only a promotional piece. It’s only a website, just an essay. But, the things that we make are more than just objects. They’re the way we paint pictures of what’s to come. They are the projects that give us license to imagine a better future for ourselves and everyone else. These objects represent the promises that we make to one another and symbolize the connections between us. They come from the friction between the world we live in and the one we want to live in by building on top of our longings and exemplifying our capabilities.

if you look closely, and ignore the things that do not matter, what comes into focus is simply this: there is the world we live in and one that we imagine. It is by our movement and invention that we inch closer to the latter. The world shapes us, and we get to shape the world.

Again, get it free at The Shape of Design.