A Tool for Understanding Our Relationship with the World Around Us: Books Every Product Designer Should Read—Zoë Ryan

By Steve Kroeter August 23, 2011

Zoë Ryan

Architecture and design curator Zoë Ryan: Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago)

book list 
When Zoë Ryan—as of this July, the John H. Bryan Curator of Architecture and Design and Chair of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago—gave us her list of books for product designers, she emphasized that she found it hard to be limited by disciplines or categories and that her view of design was an expansive one. She told us,


I feel that designers should not only read books immediately related to their field of practice, but that it is critical to draw on the expertise and insights of disciplines that are interrelated and even outside of so-called disciplinary boundaries in order to instigate inventive and provocative modes of practice. As design is being driven by an increasingly diverse range of influences, I think that a more interdisciplinary approach is essential.

As a result, her list for Designers & Books is conceptually far-reaching and forward-looking, leaning toward authors who take a wide view of design and its social responsibilities. Among her 20 book selections that “make clear that design is a tool for understanding our relationship with the world around us,” are Design Activism by Alistair Fuad-Luke, which features examples of “inventive approaches to design that emphasize collective rather than individual efforts”; and Design Like You Give a Damn by the organization Architecture for Humanity. She also includes Design for the Real World (additionally cited on Designers & Books by product designer Tim Brown, president of IDEO). Written in 1971 by Victor Papanek, who believes, as Ryan says, that designers “should not purely mine the realm of design discourse for inspiration, but should create work that responds to the contemporary sociological, psychological, or ecological environment,” this book is “more relevant than ever in today’s challenging times.”

Other books address evolving ideas that have taken hold in the 21st century: the increasing collaboration between biologists, computer technologists, and designers (Janine Benyus’s Biomimicry); consideration of what objects communicate (Deyan Sudjic’s The Language of Things and John Chapman’s Emotionally Durable Design); and ”rethinking the fluidity and pace of subject-object relationships” (Carl Honoré’s In Praise of Slowness).

With a background in art history and an interest in urban forms and public space stemming from her time at New York’s Van Alen Institute before joining the Art Institute as the first Neville Bryan Curator of Design, the British-born Ryan also includes Design and Art (edited by Alex Coles), about the “contentious relationship between art and design”; and One Place after Another (by Miwon Kwon), which “inspired my interest in temporary and permanent interventions in public space as a forum for activating the city, bringing people together, prompting discovery, and helping to promote understanding and tolerance.”

While there are more than enough books here to keep designers busy for a long time, we asked Ryan if there are any newly published books that would make it onto her “must read” list. Her recommendation? See Yourself Sensing: Redefining Human Perception by Madeline Schwartzman (Black Dog Publishing, August 2011). Ryan says,

For a number of years I have been researching and thinking about an exhibition related to design and the senses; one that not only addresses the visual and physical sensation of touching and using design but also contemplates other issues connected to how we relate to design through smell, sound, and taste.

Building with Water, 2010 (Birkhäuser Architecture)

This book is a great overview of art, design, and architecture projects that promote new sensory experiences and foster awareness of how we perceive and experience the world.

Ryan is a prolific author in her own right. In addition to exhibition catalogues—among them a survey of the work of contemporary industrial designer Konstantin Grcic (Konstantin Grcic: Decisive Design), and Hyperlinks (with Joseph Rosa), which investigates the relationships between architecture and other forms of design—her most recent book is Building with Water (2010), which grapples with the incorporation of water as a basic element of site design.

Note: Zoë Ryan’s next exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, “Bertrand Goldberg: Architecture of Invention," which will be accompanied by a catalogue published by Yale University Press.


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