Alissa Walker

Writer / United States /

Alissa Walker’s Notable Books of 2013

2 books

Not many design books strive to trace the origins of an industry that’s ubiquitous in our daily lives. But in Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, Alice Rawsthorn makes one of the most persuasive cases for pinpointing the birth of design as she introduces readers to a man named Ying Zheng who ran a kingdom named Qin in 246 B.C. By standardizing the size and shape of his army’s bows and arrows, he was able to defend his empire and conquer new lands more efficiently than his fellow warrior-kings, becoming the emperor of what would eventually be the most populous country in the world: Chin

As fans of Rawsthorn know well, she’s one of the only design writers out there who can so effectively move between different types of design: high to low, 2D to 3D, microbial to global, analog to interactive. The result is what might be the first truly multidisciplinary design book. Although it devotes plenty of words to the heavy hitters—Wedgwood, Thonet, Braun, and Apple serve as the “Big Four”—Hello World also takes some surprising and thought-provoking detours from the typical design canon, from the menacing graphics of pirate flags to the carbon fiber legs of amputee actor and artist Aimee Mullins.

While Rawsthorn’s narration of design stories through the ages is entertaining and eloquent (one can never hear enough about the development of the London and New York subway maps), much of it will not be new to avid readers of her column in the International Herald Tribune. Rawsthorn’s voice is most evocative when grappling with the issues of a changing discipline, such as when it addresses the new role of technology and data in cities, or discusses the role of strategic thinking in design, or when the writer is championing entrepreneurial, socially focused activists like Project H's Emily Pilloton. And she’s at her very best when examining the complicated ethics of the humanitarian design projects One Laptop Per Child or the Play Pump.

Rawsthorn tackles a daunting task, to map out design’s cultural impact, in a compelling and often very entertaining way. Yet due to the rapid transformation of design, which she argues has evolved from standardization in ancient China to customization and—with the advent of self-publishing and 3D printing—personalization, it feels as if she’ll soon have enough material to write another book about what happens when the tools of design are placed into everyone’s hands. Now that she’s ably covered the history of the industry with this book, I very much hope that she writes that sequel.

Steve Portigal

In speaking with designers I know, the idea of interviewing users often falls to the wayside. Not that they don’t think they should do it, but they often feel that they’re not the best people to do it—that unearthing substantial findings is best left to someone else, maybe the project’s writer, or some separate research department, or an outside consulting firm that crunches and delivers the data on a silver platter. This book by the insightful writer and ethnographer Steve Portigal not only proves that interviewing should be a keystone of design work, it also makes a case for how and why designers should be carving out the time to do this work themselves.

Using a conversational tone peppered with plenty of notes from the field, Portigal passes on excellent advice for conducting the kinds of interviews that will elicit groundbreaking insights. There are practical checklists about nearly every aspect of the process, from how to show images, to being aware of body language, to notetaking and recording interviews (even this jaded reporter learned a few tips). Other writers and researchers contribute essays, and there’s also a vast online component, which includes Creative Commons-licensed images and forms that can be downloaded and adapted by the reader.

Portigal uses lots of real-life examples from his own research projects, including an incredibly powerful story about gaining the trust of a suspicious family that is not keen on being interviewed. But perhaps the best examples come from far outside the creative world, pulling quite creative asking and listening techniques from different industries—I particularly enjoyed reading about Portigal’s own experiences in improv theater.

As I was reading I realized that I could see many of Portigal’s ideas applied beyond just interviewing users—I immediately thought about interviewing clients to get them to open up about their product, or interviewing team members to learn how they work. And maybe that’s the most important part about Portigal’s book. You’ll learn how to ask better questions, yes, but really, you’ll learn to be a better listener, which will in turn make you a better designer.

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