Brief Reviews of books that I value & often recommend...
In this book David Gelernter elegantly distills an aesthetic formula:
Elegance = Power + Simplicity
It is an equation that transcends products and machines, and requires an alchemical but very human blend of art and science. This is a balance that is not easy in most organizations, and one which designers battle for daily.
He also states that "Insisting on the scientist-type versus artist-type distinction reflects the sort of dense bureaucratic worldview in which happiness hinges on everyones's keeping his three ring binder neat." Watching my children navigate our artistically deprived school systems has made this statement more viscerally resonant. The struggle to reconcile success and pleasure may be harder in schools than anywhere where we are taught (between the lines) that success is tied to the core curriculum, being on time, and getting the worksheet done.
Gelernter also reveals how Microsoft beat Apple because of "cuteness" - a sad but convincing argument exposing our testosterone laced culture whose discomfort with beauty can stifle creativity. Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind
Roger Martin has inspired me in many ways. He has made design make sense to business while design was struggling to both amplify its importance and awkwardly integrate itself into well established corporate planning and development processes.
Martin has spent time with the princes of corporations and design consultancies, and has synthesized their wisdom with his own experience and brilliant insights. As such this is a great book for an executive who aspires to be a champion of design, and a better design-thinker.
As a design practitioner; I want more. The many truths of this book can mask the reality of where great design really gets delivered. The brutal truth is that design excellence is often stifled in the middle...where reliability and validity become hand to hand combat between design, engineering, manufacturing, marketing, and finance.
Validity air-cover is essential, but not always enough.
I may be wishing for more than this book aimed to capture...but there is more work to be done to ensure that the art & science of delivering design excellence - down to the last detail - is not overlooked or underestimated by disciples of design-thinking. This book would be perfect with such a disclaimer.
I pay homage to Roger Martin as he has established a beach head for design impact, and has called out the stale patterns of should-versus-could thinking. It's up to design professionals to write, or create the sequel.
Jerry Swartz, the founder and former CEO of Symbol Technologies simply called this "Wilson's Book". One day he said to his assistant, "get Wilson's book for Alistair"...and she reached into an overhead cabinet where a dozen of these hard-covers were stacked.
Jerry believed passionately in intuition, and as a physicist I expect he felt he needed this proof to his, well, intuition. How else would he counter the data carrying MBA's that questioned his "gut"?
I admit I started burning out at the half-way mark...but Timothy Wilson changed forever how I thought about thinking. He uncovered a world of adaptive unconscious perception (not subconscious) that is always happening in our brains, and the separation of our self awareness versus our true perceptions, motivation, and behavior.
A few years later, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a brilliant, somewhat similar, and more finishable version of the book entitled Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking . It bothered me that Wilson was only a passing reference in it.
I think of this book as Blink for psychologists. Pedestrian interlopers such as myself have to be content to take from it what is meaningful to what we do. In my case a humbling but broadened awareness of the complexity of human behavior. A small slice of Wilson has fed me for several years.
I would point hopeful novelists to chapter one, where the narrative of war, coincidence, drugs, doctrines, and blunders that spotlit Freud and set the course for psychology is worthy of a screen play and musical score.
I often start out reading non fiction business books with a skeptical tilt. I almost fell over when it became apparent that Gelernter's elegance = power + simplicity model was nowhere to be seen in the opening pages of this book...nor the notes and index!
Despite that disadvantage Matthew May turned me around as he told a number of compelling and diverse stories that explained elegance and its sources in Symmetry, Seduction, Subtraction and Sustainability.
It is a book about ideas, and some of the challenges we have producing good ones, as we are wired to follow patterns, automatically fill in blanks, and tend toward the satisfactory path, favoring implementation over incubation - what we should do versus what is possible, in Mays' words.
I liked that this book focused on the social and scientific humanity of creating elegance, versus roles of executive, manager, engineer, designer, etc. Seeking "maximum effect from minimum effort" is a principle that all of these disciplines and perspectives can share. It is a more tangible and meaningful goal than power + simplicity.
Almost depressing in its convincing summary of how pleasure is hard to find, fleeting, and crushed by the abundance of choices and options... but Barry Schwartz distills the principles and offers guidance for managing them, and how we can trick ourselves into satisfaction...if only we can ignore that opportunity-cost accountant in our head!
Every designer should understand hedonic lag and adaption, which is essentially the process by which we adapt to our conveniences - and inconveniences - rendering us both immune to the wonderful comforts of our current experiences, but also masking the surprising inconveniences which we adapt to and blindly accept.
If we can understand and map adaptations in the products that we develop it could help us identify disguised weaknesses, and thereby create a potential road map for a product's future 'pleasure obsolescence' - or map a strategy to unexpected and exciting innovation.
I found the book hard to get through in a continuous read..but snacking on chapters has enlightened me in a lot of ways.
You may not love it....but it will make you better.