Design Beyond Objects: A Guide to Making Stuff, Without Focusing on the Stuff

Creation is an iterative process, and dissociation from the final result is what allows ideas to flourish and grow in new and surprising directions.

Creation is an iterative process, and dissociation from the final result is what allows ideas to flourish and grow in new and surprising directions.


I remember exactly one experiment from middle-school science. The class was split into pairs, and each group of students was given a lump of Play-Doh and a paperclip. We were informed each lump contained a different object. Our task was to determine what was inside without disturbing the exterior form. Eventually, by poking the object from enough angles, we were able to make an educated guess as to what lay beneath.

It was our first exercise, intended to illustrate the scientific method. The lesson was that often, the answer we seek is not immediately visible. One cannot observe the inner workings of a cell with the naked eye. The best we can do is fire electrons at it and examine one bit at a time; and what is an electron microscope if not an extremely expensive (and precise) paperclip?

The Shape of Design

It is this image, of awkward teenagers clumsily poking at hunks of repurposed wallpaper cleaner, that springs to mind when I consider how Brooklyn-based designer Frank Chimero must have gone about writing his new book The Shape of Design. Born out of a talk by the same name that Chimero gave at Build, a design conference in Belfast, the book was funded on Kickstarter in early 2011 (in a time before everything was funded on Kickstarter). Why this image? Because one can only understand the theory of design through the rigorous study of its practice -- by observing what others have done right and wrong, and teasing out the common themes.

The Shape of Design is a book about solving problems by making connections, and about refining those solutions through persistence. It is not a practical manual. There are no tips, no tricks, no tutorials. Rather than focusing on the How of design, Chimero tackles the questions of What, Who, Where, When, and the most difficult of all: Why.

Even if you're not a designer, this book is worth reading, if only to acquire a better understanding of a deeply relevant and oft-misunderstood subject. Chimero wraps his ideas in a clear, strong voice that is witty at times, poignant at others. If you work with "creatives" (please note: they hate that word), you will almost certainly learn something about what's actually going on while they appear to be drawing unflattering caricatures of you from across the table.

If you create things, the book's insights will inform the way you think about your work, regardless of how you make your living. As the text itself notes, design stretches across professional boundaries:

The musician may learn from the actor ... about the finer details of drama and performance. The actor can learn from the painter about the emotive power of facial expressions. The painter from the designer, about the potential of juxtaposing images and words.

Jazz Musicians and Morning Dishes

The text goes to great lengths to underscore the importance of the creative process, which is aptly described in terms of jazz and improvisational theater. Chimero evokes the image of a sandbox, encouraging the reader to set limits in order to stimulate creativity and allow them to play freely within a well-defined space. Consider Cindy Sherman's choice to focus on self-portraits or, if you prefer a more psychedelic example, Easy Star All Stars' reggae Pink Floyd tribute album, Dub Side of the Moon.

The author cautions the reader against being distracted by the sheen of the finished artifact, and to remember that "all ideas, good and bad, start young and fragile." Creation is an iterative process, and dissociation from the final result is what allows ideas to flourish and grow in new and surprising directions. On beginnings, Chimero advises the reader to try coming up with the antithesis of an ideal solution (for example, a car with the gas and brake pedals reversed):

Your ideas must improve, because there is no conceivable way that you could come up with anything worse.

His solution reminded me of a great tip from Matthew Diffee, a New Yorker cartoonist, who advised the audience during a talk at SXSW to  do the dishes first thing in the morning, as anything they did after that would be a delight in comparison.

Chimero reminds the reader, however, that design inevitably fulfills a need: We design things for other people to use and enjoy. While most projects exists to create some kind of return on investment, real value is created when the designer finds the point at which the client's and the users' needs intersect.

In any project, there comes a point when we must ground our flights of fancy and begin to ask difficult questions, like "How will this look on  mobile devices?" and "Will this translate well to the Japanese market?" These questions, and their answers, require understanding where that intersection is and thinking critically about how we can drive our solution towards it.

Coming Up With the Next Big Thing

Chimero describes design as "the process of imagining a future and working towards it with intelligence and cleverness." He emphasizes, however, that we do not begin with a blank slate. Instead, we draw upon the work of those who came before us, searching for what Stuart Kauffman calls the adjacent possible, a term that originated in cellular biology:

Evolution occurs one step at a time, and the size of each step is limited: nature must first create the cells in leaves that can capture the energy of the sun before it can produce a flower.

The author compares the evolution of ideas to a Japanese poetic tradition, renga. Writing takes the form of a game: one poet begins with three lines, then passes to another who finishes the poem with two lines. Those two lines then form the beginning of the next poem. The take-away is that we never begin empty-handed; our ideas build upon those which came before them, as they will someday be built upon by others.

The corollary to this is that our work almost always outlives its creator. Production, the moment normally thought of as the end of the design process, might instead be thought of as the beginning of its life in the world. In the last chapter, "Gifts and Giving," Chimero tells the story of his friend Rob Giampetro, who, when asked if a business card design was "finished," replied that it would not be finished until the client handed the card to someone else.

Chimero states, "the things that we make are more than just objects. They're the way we paint pictures of what's to come." If  The Shape of Design has one theme worth pointing out, it is this: design does not reside in the finished product, nor does it live in the spark of inspiration. Design is a journey, what Chimero calls  "the long, hard, stupid way," and one fraught with challenges, uncertainty and doubt.

It is our ability to tolerate this uncertainty, and the drive to push forward through the mist until the final destination reveals itself, that allows us to discover bold new worlds and to change our own for the better.

As the author states at the end of his personal site: "Things can be better, so there is work to do. The world is not yet done." We have the choice to create the future we wish to live in. I can't think of anything more empowering than that.