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The best books on Design

recommended by Kevin G. Bethune

Reimagining Design: Unlocking Strategic Innovation by Kevin G. Bethune

Reimagining Design: Unlocking Strategic Innovation
by Kevin G. Bethune

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When we think of design, we often think of objects, typefaces and graphic art. In fact, Kevin G. Bethune argues, design is an essential human activity that goes far beyond that to encompass designing institutions and social structures, a continuum that extends from the material world to our civic existence and the ways in which we collaborate to solve problems and achieve collective ends.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

Reimagining Design: Unlocking Strategic Innovation by Kevin G. Bethune

Reimagining Design: Unlocking Strategic Innovation
by Kevin G. Bethune

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What is design? And how is it different, for example, from, say, graphic art?

It’s definitely a big question, and one that I tried to answer in my book, Reimagining Design: Unlocking Strategic Innovation. For me, design has always represented a unique problem-solving capability, to see opportunities from a creative vantage point. That’s how I’ve leveraged design in my work and how I’ve learned design. It is a creative problem-solving process that I think has manifested in terms of breadth and depth, as I describe in the book: design has a powerful capability to bring disparate disciplines together to rally around the needs of people and the greater system. It is broad. But then also, there’s a depth component to design, where we get to leverage the subject matter expertise and really demonstrate the power of the craft of design.

Would it be fair to call Reimagining Design a manifesto?

You wouldn’t be the first person to say that! That was the takeaway of Ellen McGirt, senior editor of Fortune Magazine. She said that the book reads like a leadership manifesto. And, indeed, leadership is called for I think, given a very uncertain future that we’re tracking toward, one that’s going to need ever more multidisciplinary solutions to the many issues we face in society. I think we all need to understand how design fits into the puzzle, as we bring our disciplines together to solve the world’s complex challenges.

When we commonly think of design, we think of objects, or we might think of typeface and graphic art. What you describe in your book really goes far beyond that. You talk about designing institutions, designing social structures. Perhaps it’s a continuum, from the material world to our civic existence, the ways in which we collaborate and work together?

That’s absolutely fair. The creation of anything is necessarily collaborative. And an important question to ask is, ‘Who is at the table?’ when it comes to creating anything. Who the protagonists are in collective endeavours really, really matters. I don’t want to minimise or dismiss any aspect of design in society, be it slivers of graphic design, industrial design or specific design specialties, but ultimately, what I see is that many disciplines are converging. To get the most robust solutions from design, we will have to represent those many diverse capabilities at the same table, whenever we’re thinking about any new opportunity or challenge, whether in enterprise, commerce or indeed policy.

So let’s move to the books that you’ve chosen for today’s discussion on design. Kenya Hara is perhaps not a household name outside of design circles. But I’ll wager that many of our readers are at this very minute using products by Muji, the Japanese firm where Hara has worked as art director. I certainly am. What makes him a design authority?

Thankfully, a lot of Kenya’s works have been recently translated into English. So he may yet become a household name! It’s opened the door to this new perspective on design that emanates from Japan. His writing I was introduced to by my mentor Dr. John Maeda (more on John in a moment…). Hara took my design mindset into more of a natural, intuitive place. Oftentimes, we think of design as a democratised entity, thanks to philosophies like ‘design thinking’, or the advent of digital technologies which have been advancing at such a rapid pace. These days in the profession we often think of design in the form of UX and UI and the graphic design of computer screens. But Hara’s work really brings us back to asking what makes us intuitively human. How does design actually help solutions to show up for people in the most intuitive ways, to a point where the designer actually almost becomes invisible? Good design just feels naturally a part of our subconscious if it’s approached in this way, whether it’s a graphic design and communication, a physical affordance or other solution. Think about it – the best designs seem completely natural, unforced. That intuitiveness, that thoughtfulness is something I really appreciate in Hara’s work.

It’s a beautiful volume. In itself, the book is like a statement piece when it comes to good design. I love Hara’s description of a book as ‘information sculpture’. At Five Books we applaud that! The book itself is really an object of desire, and not just a vehicle for information.

I have a couple of copies in my home for that very reason. It’s a celebration. When I first saw it the book definitely blew my mind for his framing of the sensory opportunities that design can have. I just thought it was unbelievable.

We talked about the scope of design kind of with a capital D, which is very much the subject of your work. Tell us about John Maeda, from MIT Lab, and his book, The Laws of Simplicity. Maeda’s book has all sorts of insights, for design applications in business, technology, the commercial realm… all walks of life, it seems.

Several years before I even met John, he was a hero of mine that I followed on Twitter. He is a true polymath, and was a polymath well before it became a popular notion. He emanated from the MIT Media Lab with a fascinating mixture of computer science and art. His artwork is still shown worldwide, and very much so. That is a rare multidisciplinary pairing! He has worked at MIT Media Lab, as president of RISD Rhode Island School of Design, and spanned many disparate roles, from becoming the first design partner in Silicon Valley to joining Automattic, and more recently the CTO of Everbridge, a crisis management company. That’s definitely wrestling with world events, like Covid and other crises around the planet, to which he’s leveraging design and computational technologies as problem-solving resources for good.

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I came across Laws of Simplicity, one of his many seminal works, several years back, at a time when I was really trying to get to grips with these multidisciplinary yearnings that I was feeling, wrestling with how design could fit into my professional puzzle. To find this book, one that really embraced the intersections between design and the power of computation, and which described vividly how these elements can fit into systems, be it enterprises or institutions, simply bowled me over. John offered a hierarchy through these ‘laws of simplicity’ that helped me understand the world through a different filter. I really appreciated it at a time when I needed the book at a professional crossroads, and I appreciate it even more now. Highly recommended for any aspiring or established designer.

To me it reads almost like a philosophical manual, or user’s manual for life – sound wisdom to apply in one’s daily life, whatever you happen to be doing professionally.

Absolutely. All professions are currently grappling with what exactly a digital product is, or should be, right? A dematerialised product which is nonetheless often different from a service. Even in services, however, whether it is legal services or financial services, the digital challenges are many. Perhaps the tendency for all of us in businesses is to think about challenges in terms of managing scope-creep and complexity. For that, it is immensely helpful to have some basic rules beyond the typical UX/ UI sort of patterns that we are familiar with in the trade. This derivative set of principles helps bring us as designers back once again to that human place that we desperately need.

The Invention of Desire is another book that is able to marry two seemingly very disparate fields – technology and art – in a collection of essays and musings on design. These take as their starting point paintings based on the abstract geometry of the human cell, paintings by the author herself, contemplating design at the molecular level. This is the human place you describe?

Jessica in her works, much like Hara, moves in a direction away from the present Zeitgeist around all things design related, the digital and the data thinking, and really reinforces the point that design represents one of the most important humanistic disciplines that we can imagine. In her words, design gets to the very heart of the question of why we even exist. I met Jessica through an invitation to join one of Design Observer’s podcasts, “The Design of Business | The Business of Design,” founded by Jessica Helfand and Michael Bierut. That’s when I learned that she has an extensive library of books under her authorship.

In the face of certain online paradigms that we see in the headlines – whether it’s IDEO trying to “redesign death” or LinkedIn trying to redesign the workplace – she’s reading our designed environment from a very personal place, taking as a reference point her very own experience with loss and grief. She is able to take this raw, very personal experience, and communicate it to us through the prism of design. Design, she reminds us, is not just some glossy veneer that you dance over. It is central, and not some kind of facade to which we apply ‘design thinking’. These are principles that are so much deeper than what the present pedagogy of design is giving rhyme and reason to. She’s reminding us what those core human tenets are. I just love that every chapter breaks down a life in design into such resonant elements, whether it’s patience, compassion, melancholy, humility. The chapter titles themselves are human strivings that we need to understand as designers.

The chapter headings – authority, fantasy, identity, consequence, compassion, patience, solitude – again make this appear almost like a philosophical treatise. A thread running through all the design books you selected are arguments that serve almost as antidotes to our extreme reverence for technology.

These books are reminding us of what it means to be human, what it means to unlock human potential, human connection. With the pace of technological change there’s so much data richness that often in our profession I believe we’re at risk of glossing over the important questions that we need to think about. I believe we need to mind the past, we need to be more present in the human moments today, and of course imagine a myriad of possible and plausible futures that we could design for. All of these questions are connected.

Your next selection is a tribute to a teacher, and something of a technical manual for problem solving. Elements of Design: Rowena Reed Kostellow and the Structure of Visual Relationships starts out with a seemingly simple premise, presenting 3D puzzles and working through them, in a way that you come to understand how design is problem solving at its heart.

When I was introduced to this book by a friend, I was wrestling in my own business with the deep spikes of design capability that I wanted to represent for my company, with industrial design definitely as the tip of the spear. In my design practice I try to make sure no matter how strategic the engagement is, the industrial design opportunities where I apply my own two hands, that I am truly solving the critical problems for my clients. I never had the opportunity to meet Rowena Kostellow, but in this book you encounter the thoughtfulness of a craft-driven leader, someone who led by example, really inspired her students to trust the process.

Through foundational shapes or divergent explorations of ways to rearrange the puzzles presented in the book, she made sure that students were appreciating how the solution might fit within the context of where it would reside. By doing these simple exercises as a young designer, you eventually find your hierarchy, you find the proportion, you find your scale, the dimensions that are necessary for your specific project. It was awesome for me to experience that journey.

Craft can denote a certain virtuosity or technical skill, techne in the Greek sense, which can be handed down from one generation of designers to another. The Japanese folk craft movement mingei, which came up in a recent conversation about surfboard design, is a similar precedent: the idea that design intelligence can issue from very humble, almost invisible sources. That seems to get at the heart of the idea of the ‘super normal’, which is the title of the last book in your selection, Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary.

There’s an interesting paradox in the ambivalence of something obvious but nevertheless extraordinary. As you engage with a well designed object, you realize that it’s showing up for you in a very thoughtful way, as if there’s almost a spiritual intelligence in the object. Because it’s crafted so well.

As an industrial designer you worry about the footprint, the sustainability impact that your product will have, the way it relates to climate change, all these urgent issues. If I’m going to introduce a new affordance, I don’t care who the client is, it is critical to ask whether that affordance will actually be showing up for people in a thoughtful way, and in the context of their realities. Ideally, it will be something that can become better with time. However, that’s something you need to establish at the outset.

So I definitely want to think about sustainability from the very beginning. Can this object easily be taken apart? Recycled? Repurposed? Is there longevity to what I’m helping create? It’s an artefact that will have a lifespan. Does it actually deserve to be out there? That’s my hope for what I create, that I’m not just feeding into the unfortunate present paradigm of marketing marketers, consumers consuming, the never-ending production of just another object that gets tossed to the junk drawer in a year. Thoughtful design has to deserve to be there and stand the test of time.

Do you feel that there’s already too much stuff in the world?

Absolutely. I think about it in my own home. I know what it meant in my earlier years to buy furniture and not have it last more than a year or two. It’s more costly, not in the long run but even in the short run! And then there’s the cost and time consumed in replacing it time and again with every house move. It’s simply not the way that we should live. I’m trying to scale down, to minimise and make sure that any artefact in my home and my family’s experience is actually built to last and that we enjoy it for years and years. The modular Vitsoe shelves that you and I both use for our library are a fine example.

We’ve talked quite a bit about technology. Do you feel like we may be experiencing a digital backlash? That the design profession may be moving back to a more analog paradigm? Does it even make sense to speak in this sort of binary way?

I think it makes perfect sense. Let’s consider the design books that we mentioned. We have to be careful to not let technology dictate or prescribe what human experience is or should be. To do so totally misses the point of intentional design. Digital design has certainly accelerated things, and created great efficiencies because of the speed of everything. I think sometimes it pays for us to slow down and appreciate those chords of human imperative, bring that front and centre in our practice as guiding principles for the work that we do. Unfortunately, speed sometimes becomes an implied authority.

Just because it’s readily available, or even immediately or instantly available, doesn’t actually make it useful. That could be a motto for slow design.

Although I am an advocate of slowing down, I am already working on book number two, a month into that writing journey. If you believe in reimagining design, then it’s fair to ask, what does fully empowered design look like? What does it feel like? That’s the unifying thread in the books that we talked about for me, showing people design’s capabilities beyond the formulaic, what we are often conditioned to think of as design. In my practice I also want to lean into design opportunities that are more thoughtful, human and intuitive in nature. It’s an aspiration to be a living example of what that approach to design, as illustrated in these books, what it means for the world. To me it means a richer array of disciplines, personalities, perspectives, brought round the table to create not just the objects of our lived world, but also the institutions that bring us all together for useful collective enterprise.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

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Kevin G. Bethune

Kevin G. Bethune

Kevin G. Bethune is the Founder and Chief Creative Officer of dreams • design + life, a think tank for design and innovation. Over a career that spans more than twenty years, he has worked in engineering, business, and design.

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Kevin G. Bethune

Kevin G. Bethune

Kevin G. Bethune is the Founder and Chief Creative Officer of dreams • design + life, a think tank for design and innovation. Over a career that spans more than twenty years, he has worked in engineering, business, and design.