Looking for a great, quick-to-read design book? Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School takes less than an hour to plow through, but its multitude of ideas, quotes, and counter-points reinvigorated my design thinking this week. Each page is a single distillation of insight into architecture with an accompanying sketch to illustrate, and even though the title says architecture you could apply most of these nuggets of wisdom to any of the design disciplines. The advice ranges from broad suggestions like #17 (this is one of the more verbose entries, by the way):
The more specific a design idea is, the greater its appeal is likely to be.
Being nonspecific in an effort to appeal to everyone usually results in reaching no one. But drawing upon specific observation, poignant statement, ironic point, witty reflection, intellectual connection, political argument, or idiosyncratic belief in a creative work can help you create environments others will identify with in their own way.
Design a flight of stairs for the day a nervous bride descends them. Shape a window to frame a view of a specific tree on a perfect day in autumn. Make a balcony for the worst dictator in the world to dress down his subjects. Create a seating area for a group of surly teenagers to complain about their parents and teachers.
Designing in idea-specific ways will not limit the ways in which people use and understand your buildings, it will give them license to bring their own interpretations and idiosyncrasies to them.
to the tersely practical, like the drawing advice from #50:
Windows look dark in the daytime.
When rendering an exterior building view, making the windows dark (except when the glass is reflective or a light-colored blind is behind the glass) will add depth and realism.
Things I Learned is another of those books that I wish someone had handed me in early art school, before I moved beyond the foundational 2D and 3D design classes. (I found it via a quote used in the Music of Interaction Design talk given at SXSWi 2011 by Cennydd Bowles and James Box, which is also well worth listening to if you need some design inspiration.)
Any other titles along these lines that I should keep an eye out for? What simple primers have inspired you lately?
Working over the past few months on a fairly large web application with a lot of moving parts, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about abstraction in the design process, about how best to break it down so that my co-coder and I don’t go crazy wrestling with the complexity. Thankfully, I found a book written over 40 years ago that addresses these design problems directly, in a formal writing style both lucid and technical.
Patterns and models
Christopher Alexander, the architect and theorist best known for popularizing the pattern language method of analyzing design problems, wrote Notes on the Synthesis of Form in 1964, when he was 28 years old. The book was hailed as a breakthrough in design theory, but it also quickly gained notoriety in computer science, as the pioneers in that field recognized that the framework could be adapted to the nascent language structures they were developing (Alexander’s later book A Pattern Language is cited as one of the most influential works leading to the invention of modern object-oriented programming). Instead of a bottom-up approach that seeks to gather existing pattern recipes from those working in the field, Notes outlines a process by which you can methodically break a problem into related sets of diagrammed models, yielding a top-down solution.
To understand the human body you need to know what to consider as its principal functional and structural divisions. You cannot understand it until you recognize the nervous system, the hormonal system, the vasomotor system, the heart, the arms, legs, trunk, head, and so on as entities. You cannot understand chemistry without knowing the pieces of which molecules are made. You cannot claim to have much understanding of the universe until you recognize its galaxies as important pieces. You cannot understand the modern city until you know that although roads are physically intertwined with the distribution of services, the two remain functionally distinct.
One of the comforting sentiments in the book is his recognition that individual humans are unable to intuitively solve complex, modern problems without a visual model or mathematical structure to illustrate how the individual components interrelate (Alexander includes some nifty diagrams and sketches throughout the work). The epilogue of the book states his focus succinctly:
My main task has been to show that there is a deep and important underlying structural correspondence between the pattern of a problem and the process of designing a physical form which answers that problem. I believe that the great architect has in the past always been aware of the patterned similarity of problem and process, and that it is only the sense of this similarity of structure that ever led him to the design of greats forms.
A design problem is not an optimization problem
A basic tree of possible requirement sets for a kettle
His approach to design is essentially from the negative: given the yin-and-yang interplay of form (e.g. ‘teakettle’) and context (e.g. ‘person wants to boil water for tea in a kitchen’), the best way to the design the form is to develop sets of intuitively clear misfit variables, binary “good/not-good” properties. He describes this relationship in terms of “goodness of fit”:
Again, it is obvious that a kettle which is uncomfortable to hold causes stress, since the context demands that it should be comfortable to hold. The fact that the kettle is for use by human hands makes this no more than common sense. At the opposite extreme, if somebody suggests that the ensemble is stressed if the kettle will not reflect ultraviolet radiation, common sense tells us to reject this — unless some special reason can be given, which shows what damage the absorption of ultraviolet does to the ensemble. […] A design problem is not an optimization problem. […] For most requirements it is important only to satisfy them at a level which suffices to prevent misfit between the form and the context, and to do this in the least arbitrary manner possible.
Potato peelers and pruning shears
One of the crazier diagram sketches from the book's appendix, depicting an optimal layout for a rural Indian village that was planned by Christopher Alexander
If you’ve seen Gary Hustwit’s documentary Objectified, about industrial and product design, you might remember the segment about potato peelers and pruning shears. The designers relate that in their work they seek out the “outliers” first, in this case that these tools need to be comfortable and usable in the hands of a hypothetical elderly, arthritic mother. If you’ve baked in that level of accessibility into your design, then a fortiori you’ve already solved much of the problem for the rest of your users.
In the field of web design and development, this is implemented as progressive enhancement, layering additional presentation and functionality layers on top of an already well-formed, accessible system.
Alexander’s method of breaking down the problem into functional sets makes it easier to recognize these widest-angle “misfit” outliers, and to design with them in mind from the outset, before you begin to design the actual physical form of the building, city, software, etc. If you apply this approach to all of the other aspects of the problem, an individual designer can achieve a solution that is inherently simple and orderly, rather than having to prune down and optimize a cumbersome structure. He makes a compelling case, and I see myself doing a lot more up-front consideration before jumping into my next large project. One final quote to tie things together:
Consider the design of the now familiar one-hole kettle. The single wide short spout embraces a number of requirements: all those which center round the problems of getting water in and out of the kettle, the problem of doing it safely without the lid’s falling off, the problem of making manufacture as simple as possible, the problem of making manufacture as simple as possible, the problem of providing warning when the kettle boils, the need for internal maintenance. In the old kettles these requirements were met separately by three components: a spout for pouring, a hole in the top for filling and cleaning, and a top which kept the steam in and rattled when the kettle boiled. Suddenly, when it became possible to put non-corrosive metals on the market, and cheap, available descaler made it unnecessary to get into the kettle for descaling, it became apparent that all these requirements really had a single center of physical implication, not three. The wide spout can be used for filling and pouring, and as a whistle, and there is no top to fall open and let scalding water out over the pourer’s hands. The set of requirements, once its unity is recognized, leads to a single physical component of the kettle.
(Image at top adapted from photo by Flickr user Todd Ehlers)