Why Glimmer? (Q&A)
Interview with Warren Berger (click here for "Why Glimmer?" video).
First, why did you choose to call your book “Glimmer?”
This book started with me trying to answer for myself the basic question “What is design?” And as I was doing that, early on, I came across an interesting definition that said: “Design is the glimmer in God’s eye.” That word “glimmer” stuck with me, because the word is associated with “potential” and “possibility”—and that’s what design is all about. After I’d already started using the word as my working title, the global economic crisis hit, and soon lots of people, including President Obama, began to talk about “the glimmer of hope”—the notion that we can find our way out of this mess, but it’s going to take ideas, innovation, and a willingness to re-invent everything.
If you had to sum it up in one line, what is Glimmer about?
There are a number of big ideas at work, but I think the overarching theme in the book is: “Progress happens by design.” Contrary to what many people think, design isn’t necessarily about style, or expensive furniture or certain typefaces. It’s really about coming up with an intelligent, thoughtful plan for making things better. There are many definitions of design, but I like designer Bruce Mau’s definition, which is: “Design is the human capacity to plan and produce desired outcomes.” As Mau points out, that human capacity—to improve, to re-invent things, to solve everyday problems—has never been greater than in today’s wired world. And it’s a good thing, because we really need great design more than ever right now.
Why do we need design more than ever now?
There are so many challenges that cry out for smart design solutions. For example, the best way for businesses to fight their way out of the current recession is through innovation—and great design leads to innovation. As I show in the book, companies can apply design principles not only to the products they make, but also to every aspect of business, right down to the way they treat employees and customers. Meanwhile, we also need great design outside of business—we need fresh ways of thinking about education, caring for seniors, cleaning up our water supply, rebuilding our infrastructure. Glimmer shows how designers are now tackling all these issues. And some of the most amazing things are being done not by professionals, but by everyday people, using basic design strategies to solve problems. In times ahead, we’re going to need lots of ideas and actions from people everywhere. My hope is that Glimmer can play a role in sparking ideas by sharing basic design principles—and that it might even help people start to think of themselves as designers and problem-solvers.
In the book you also make the case that people can and should apply design thinking to their personal lives. Can you explain that?
In studying designers and how they live and work, I’ve come to believe that the same principles and creative processes they use to solve business or social problems can also be used to guide people toward a more productive and fulfilling way of life. Design provides tools for planning and creating. Those tools can help people figure out how to make more of their time, how to keep learning and growing, how to plan for a better future throughout all stages of life. The truth is, a lot of us don’t design our lives very well—if at all. In the book, I show that design thinking can be applied to fundamental questions like: How do I express individuality? How do I balance living well and living responsibly? How can I design an environment that’s conducive to creativity? How can I plan a way to age comfortably? And finally, is it possible to “design happiness?” (The short answer to that last question is: Yes.)
Is there a secret to how designers solve problems—what enables them to do this better than others, and how are they able to tackle so many different types of problems?
I think we can all learn a lot from studying designers and how they think. There’s no one secret, though—it’s more of a process they go through, which is described anecdotally in the book. It often begins with stepping back and questioning the way things work. After that, designers have ways to spark mental connections and “smart recombinations” that help them to re-imagine the world we live in and come up with fresh alternatives. This can run the gamut from a new way to peel a potato to a new way to design healthcare systems. In the book, I give readers an up-close view of the thinking and working process of designer Bruce Mau, while also profiling other designers, primarily to show through examples how they approach problems—how they seek out new possibilities and bring ideas to life.
Why did you choose to focus on Bruce Mau?
Actually, I wanted to tap into the ideas and the approaches of many designers, which is why there are dozens of top design thinkers featured in the book. But I also wanted the book to have a central character, someone readers could follow and really get to know as they went on this journey through the world of design. I chose Mau in part because he’s such a colorful and interesting character. He grew up on a working farm in rural Canada. As he puts it, he’s probably one of the few designers “who can put a pig in the freezer if you need it.” He has emerged as a superstar in the design world and he’s an inspirational figure to younger designers, who tend to quote from Mau’s “manifesto” on how to live and work. But Mau is also controversial within the design world. He’s outspoken in his belief that design can change the way we live and that it can accomplish almost anything—if it’s done well. Some people take issue with that, and I try to present both sides of the debate on the power and potential of design. Above all, what I like about Mau is the sense of wonder and optimism that radiates from him. He firmly believes that, even with all the problems in the world right now, this is actually a great moment in time, a time of amazing possibilities. It’s a time when we, as a society and as individuals, can really design a better future and a better way of living. I think Glimmer embraces that optimistic spirit of Bruce Mau.
In Glimmer you also feature a number of non-professional designers—including a few celebrities—who are designing solutions to everyday problems.
I wanted to show that you don’t have to be a designer with a capital D in order to use design in your life. As I worked on the book, I encountered so many fascinating people who are designing fresh solutions and new ways of tackling old problems. I use the term “basement Buckys”—a reference to the famous designer Buckminster Fuller—to describe all those everyday creators using design principles to do amazing things. Some of them happen to be famous: I interviewed the rock ‘n’ roll icon David Byrne of The Talking Heads, who these days is designing everything from chairs to bicycle racks. Meanwhile, Brad Pitt is trying to redesign housing in New Orleans, and in the book I talk about how the actress Jamie Lee Curtis attempted to design a better diaper. I think this shows that famous people, like the rest of us, are driven by the same need to solve problems in a creative way. I believe all of us, deep down, think of ourselves as designers.
How did you come up with the 10 big design principles featured in the book?
As I studied many 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. So I began to distill these principles and ended up with ten core ones. Some of these principles came directly from Bruce Mau, and some are from other designers. It should be said that there are many, many design principles, and I’m not saying these are the only ones, or the best ones. I was looking for principles that seemed to be the most widely shared by designers, and also ones that non-designers could easily grasp. And I was also seeking guidelines that crossed over from business, to social issues, to personal life—because I wanted to cover all of those areas in the book. In the end, I found that I ended up using some of those very design principles to help me work through the complex challenge of writing this book. I visited many design studios and companies, interviewing close to 300 people, and I needed to have some guiding principles to manage all that information and craft it into a book.
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