Warren Berger is the author of Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life and Maybe Even the World, just published by Penguin Press. I found the book to be a breed apart from all of the many design thinking books hitting the shelves, and worth a further look.
- Question: Why did you write Glimmer?
Answer: This book started with me trying to answer for myself the basic question, “What is design?” I’d been writing about it on and off for years, for magazines like Wired, and it was always interesting to me that the term was used in so many different ways. As I started collecting definitions, I stumbled upon an intriguing yet anonymous quote: “Design is the glimmer in God’s eye.” That word “glimmer” resonated with me. It’s a word associated with “potential” and “possibility.” To me, that’s what design is all about.
- Question: What’s the core concept of the book?
Answer: I can sum it up with a single question: What can we learn from designers? My position is that we can learn a lot from designers about how to face up to problems, look at them with a fresh eye and an open mind, and begin to solve them in a step-by-step manner. A designer’s job is to bring about positive change. To my mind, progress happens by design.
- Question: There are a lot of books attempting to answer essentially the same question you raise, so what is unique about Glimmer?
Answer: For one thing, I’m a journalist, not a designer or scholar. I’m more concerned with stories than case studies. I wanted to bring design to life, and you can really only do that by trying to recreate human experiences that have been shaped in some interesting way by design. I particularly love to describe the moment when a designer begins to see that flicker of a new possibility. I call those “glimmer moments.”
- Question: As a journalist and outsider coming into the design world, what did you learn about how designers think?
Answer: I learned that designers themselves tend to be outsiders! They often come into a challenge without being overly steeped in the traditions and conventional wisdom of that particular category. Paula Scher told me, “I do my best work when I’m totally unqualified for a job,” meaning she isn’t weighed down by all the mindsets and assumptions of the “experts” so that she can take a na√Øve view of what’s possible. And she can ask what some people would consider “stupid questions”—questions so basic that maybe nobody has bothered to ask them in a long time.
So the first important thing designers do is to just reassess and question everything—but they do this with a great sense of optimism and openness. Then they observe to figure out what people really need, generate lots of ideas in a rather non-linear way, and then create prototypes to see what might actually work.
- Question: How did you arrive at your ten principles?
Answer: As I studied a lot of top designers, I discovered that there were common principles they seem to share—even though these designers were working in very different disciplines, from product designers to graphic designers to people who design social services. They seemed to be guided and motivated by similar ideas and creative approaches. I began to distill these core principles and ended up with ten. Some of these principles came directly from Bruce Mau, the designer featured most prominently in Glimmer.
I understand that there are many, many design principles, and I’m not saying these are the best ones. It’s just that they fit what I was looking for—a set of principles that seemed to be widely shared by designers, and also the ones that non-designers could easily grasp. On top of that, I was also looking for guidelines that crossed over from business, to social issues, to personal life.
- Question: In the last section of the book you put forth the notion that life can be viewed as a design project. What do you mean?
Answer: Yes, that is a slightly radical notion. Designers like Mau and Richard Saul Wurman treat their own lives as design projects. If you think about it, life is like any complex challenge: it can demand, at times, that you approach it the way a designer might—with a willingness to ask stupid questions, to explore unusual new possibilities and think differently.
Designers have a certain perspective and methodology they bring to challenges. So what I’m saying to readers is, once you’ve absorbed what this mindset and methodology is all about, and you’ve read all these stories of how it works in the real world, you might try applying design principles in various situations in your own life. This is not to say that it offers a foolproof plan or anything; it’s just another way to think about and approach life’s challenges.
Matthew E. May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing, and blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.