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A Design Book For the Rest of Us

In his new book, Glimmer, journalist Warren Berger tries to explain to the uninitiated what designers have been saying for years: that good...


In his new book, Glimmer, journalist Warren Berger tries to explain to the uninitiated what designers have been saying for years: that good design really can change the world.

Design can change the world, you've no doubt heard. In certain circles, this is not news-it's a given, central to the best problem-solving and world-changing ideas around. But how exactly does the thinking of a legendary designer like Bruce Mau accomplish that? And how do you explain that idea in a way that makes the rest of us non-designers care? One way is to show people how design can change their own lives. From there, the leap to the rest of the world seems a lot smaller. This is strategy of Warren Berger, in his new book Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, and Maybe Even the World. "If you're talking about the kind of design that can help solve problems," says Berger, "we should all care, because we've got a hell of a lot of problems."GOOD: You were a relative outsider in the design world when you took on this subject. Did that help or hurt?WARREN BERGER: It can be a little overwhelming to come in and try to make sense of that world, because there was so much I didn't know, and still don't know, about design. But as designers themselves understand, it's good to come at something as an outsider, because it allows you to see things that the insiders are too close to see. It means you can ask naïve questions like, "Has anybody ever noticed that the principles that work well in designing an iPhone might also work well in helping someone reboot their career?" Also, being an outsider means that you are able to speak about the subject in English, instead of the native tongue, Designese. G: Why should we all care a little more about design?WB: Well, if you're talking about the design of Alexander McQueen stiletto shoes that look like upside-down armadillos, I'm not sure we should care more. But if you're talking about the kind of design that can help solve problems, we should care because we've got a hell of a lot of problems. The McQueen shoes being one of them.
"Being an outsider in the design world means that you are able to speak about the subject in English, instead of the native tongue, Designese."
G: Was that a question of design-as-problem-solving one you wanted to take on with the book?WB: Actually, I went into the book not really thinking design could change the world. I just wanted to understand designers and how they think. But eventually I came around to the view that design has the potential-potential, mind you-to change everything around us. And that means it can change the world. It's not that designers are superior to the rest of us. It's just that they've worked out some methodologies and approaches, through decades of practice, that are pretty good at reinventing things and solving problems. And so if we find ourselves, as we do now, in a position where we have to reinvent and solve problems, why not at least take a look at what these guys do and see if it can be applied? I don't think that's such a crazy idea.G: Do you think designers have done a good job communicating that outside these specific circles?WB: I don't think the design community knows how to talk about social design without sounding arrogant. And they get beat up if they talk about it, sometimes by people within their own industry. They get accused of being imperialists, or of being naïve meddlers. They get reminded of things like, "You know, the last time designers tried to fix things they gave us public housing projects." So a lot of designers want to get into social efforts, but they're almost apologetic about it. On the other hand you also have design-can-save-the-world zealots who really are naïve and kind of insufferable. I think designers need to find a balanced way to talk about this-optimistic, unapologetic, yet at the same time humble and realistic. G: Can you give me an example of design in our everyday lives that has changed the way we work?WB: The coffee mug. Imagine if everyone at the office had to drink coffee from their cupped hands? G: Bruce Mau, a central figure in your book, is an oddly divisive character. Why is that?WB: Within the insular world of design, he became a boldfaced name, and that created some resentment-and a suspicion that he's a self-promoter. Maybe he was at one time, but all I can tell you is, I wish right now he was more of a self-promoter-I could use one of those to help hawk this book. Also, he tends to make all those big bold pronouncements about how design can change the world. A lot of people hear that stuff and say, "Give me a break!"
"It's not that designers are superior to the rest of us. It's just that they've worked out some approaches through decades of practice that are pretty good at reinventing things and solving problems."
G: Why did you pick him as your narrative focus?WB: Well, it's partly because of his Massive Change philosophy-he thinks design can do anything, and I wanted someone like that at the center of the book. I also wanted an interesting character. Mau has a good sense of humor and a great back story: He came from this godawful mining town in the middle of nowhere, and spent his early years working the family farm. The first time I interviewed him, he told me, "I'm the only designer you'll meet who can put a pig in the freezer if you need it." The best thing about Mau, though, is that he's so good at articulating the power and potential of design in a way that can get anyone engaged and excited. I think more designers could use that gift.G: Was he easy to work with? WB: Bruce was easy to work with-when I could get him focused on the book. But like a lot of designers I met, he always seems to be doing 22 things at once, and that started to catch up with Bruce from a health and well-being standpoint, right as we were working on the book. So one day, he disappeared-went off and enrolled himself in some intense holistic health program. He called me at one point and said, "The next time you see me, I will be a different person." And when I saw him after that he was like 40 pounds lighter, had shaved his beard, improved his sleeping, and had come up with an elaborate new plan to manage his work schedule. He'd redesigned his life! So of course that became part of the book.G: I mean, there's design like a cheap laptop used in developing countries, and there's design like the infographics on this web site-but when you start talking about redesigning one's life, you sort of lose me. WB: Think of it this way: If we accept that design is, as Paula Scher says, "the art of planning," then what's more deserving of a good and thoughtful plan than your life? Designers, by virtue of what they do for a living, have figured out this art of planning, and they've demonstrated that they're really good at turning plans into reality. So why not borrow some of their approaches and methods and see if they can be applied to our own life challenges? Maybe you don't use it all the time, maybe it's just something you have in your back pocket. And as different challenges come up-What am I going to do about this big career decision? How am I going to decide where to live? How do I bring more creativity into my life?-you turn to your trusty design methodology and see if some of those principles apply to the situation at hand. It's surprising how often they do.G: What happens when this methodology is applied to solve global problems? Can you think of an example where this has really worked?WB: I can think of a lot of examples. But let's be clear, when we talk about changing the world by design, we're talking about small changes. An individual solving a problem in a particular place, which then changes the lives of the people in that place-and maybe spreads to other places. I think of the story of Jock Brandis, which I tell in the book. He's a regular guy who goes to some impoverished village in Mali and notices that all the women have bleeding fingers from having to peel peanuts all day. He decides to design a mechanical peanut sheller, even though he has almost no resources or materials to work with. He embraces those constraints and applies basic design principles and voilà: He creates a device that can shell nuts. Productivity in the village skyrockets. No more bloody fingers. Now the Universal Nut Sheller is being used in lots of places in Africa, India, and so on.
"When it comes to solving problems around the world, it's not just a matter of creating a gee-whiz object. In fact, the object is the least of it. You have to design the whole ecosystem to support that object."
G: You talk about the difference between design we want and design we need in the book. That reminds me about this thing that keeps coming up among designers working on social change: It's not enough for something to just look cool anymore. It has to work well, for a long period of time, be cheap, make use of local resources and be widely implementable. Who do you think is doing a stand-out job?WB: Well, it's an older example, but Martin Fisher and KickStart meet all those criteria you just mentioned. Fisher figured out that in order for something to be of any use in poor areas, it had "be cheap as a chicken." His water pumps certainly proved to be affordable, durable, and scalable. And they've had a huge impact on the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people. That took a lot of work on his part-not just designing the pumps, but creating an environment in which those pumps could succeed. When it comes to solving problems around the world, it's not just a matter of creating a gee-whiz object. In fact, the object is the least of it. You have to design the whole ecosystem to support that object. Think of the XO laptop-the object itself was great design, at least I think so. But they had trouble with everything else.G: In focusing on design as a solution to problems, is any of the fun lost? WB: I don't think so-I think the fun is increased. What's more fun than solving a problem? I know the answer to that: sex. But otherwise, what's more fun than solving a problem?Warren Berger is author of Glimmer: How design can transform your life, and maybe even the world (Penguin Press), which you can buy here. He is also the editor of the blog GlimmerSite.
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