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Book Review: Design Problems in Book Form

book coverDesign is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable
By Nathan Shedroff
Rosenfeld Media, 2009

Nathan Shedroff tells us in the first few pages of Design Is the Problem that his book was “written for the designer in all of us…helpful for engineers, managers, students, and anyone who wants to build a better, more sustainable world.” He announces his topic, “design that is about systems solutions, intent, appropriate and knowledgeable integration of people, planet, and profit, and the design that, above all, cares about customers as people and not merely consumers.” In short, it’s for everyone, and it’s about everything.

As a college freshman, I imagined a fantasy project in which everything I knew could be organized and categorized taxonomically. I even went so far as to begin outlining the top-level headings and some of the secondary subheads, but I stopped short of actually filling in any concrete knowledge. Perhaps I had looked into too many encyclopedias.

Now Nathan Shedroff has completed my fantasy project. The result is a distracting mixture of sweeping generalizations and occasional fine-grained details. He writes four pages to explain usability, including accessibility, and another four to explain the paper vs. plastic bag conundrum. To his credit, there are references throughout the book to usability or user experience, but there is no further development of the labels.

You have to wonder what source material Shedroff was working from. There are no end notes to support his claims and only occasional footnotes, often merely citing a URL. More typical is his statement: “Again, I haven’t seen definitive proof of this yet, but my instinct says there is a pattern here.”

Sidebars and bulleted lists abound. Page 113 contains two lists: The Five Levels of Significance – from Meaning/Reality to Performance/Features, echoing the diagram on page 112; and The 15 Core Meanings in alphabetical order from Accomplishment to Wonder. There is no specific discussion of these terms.

To be sure, there are some nuggets that are at least as entertaining as they are useful. The discussions of transmaterialization “turning a service into a product,” and informationalization, “sending the recipe,” are particularly disarming. Car-sharing services are an example of the former, and open-source design is an example of the latter.

The section on recycling and disassembly of discarded products contains some basic information that was new and interesting to me. The chapter “Declaring Results” provides a detailed survey of both the challenges and the current solutions to the problem of rating corporate sustainability efforts and claims.

More often, Nathan leaves us hanging. He proposes a distinction between a fad and a trend, discusses fads for the rest of the paragraph, but forgets to devote any words to trends. User interface designers will love his injunction to “choose metaphors that won’t get old quickly (or don’t use them at all)”—it’s the shortest of three bullet points on designing for durability. Too often, Nathan neglects to tell us “how to.”

Nathan’s copy editor lets him down occasionally, allowing “SIM cards” (SIMMs) and “memory” to stand as distinct items in one list, confusing “proceeding” with “preceding” on another page. The publishers, however, have given Nathan a gorgeous printed format with many pages of full-bleed color, often blank, using purple to define major sections and green for chapters. Although it’s never specified, one hopes they used soy-based inks. The book is also downloadable as a PDF, and there are websites and an RSS feed available by subscription.

One possible use for the book tantalizes: take a large, cross-functional team and turn it into a book club. Then assign different portions of the book to appropriate team members who must read and do web searches to fill in all the how-to blanks in their respective portions.

This book should have been either narrower in its focus or many pages longer. Like an encyclopedia, it covers a wide range of topics, but encyclopedias get down to details and specific information in the short sections under the abstract headings. Design Is the Problem usually does not.