Review: How Design Makes the World

Just finished Scott Berkun’s new book How Design Makes the World, and I can definitively conclude that it is a worthy read. Not just for designers, but for anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of what work goes into the products they experience every day. More succinctly, the book excels at being accessible, modern, and applicable.

First, the book is delightfully accessible yet surprisingly thorough. It is a light read that can easily be completed in a day or two, but is worth having on your bookshelf for years due to its broad coverage of design philosophies, principles, and methodologies. Berkun peppers the text with many relatable examples (from Norman doors to airport wayfinding to toasters) to make the concepts easy to grasp for literally anyone, not just existing students of design. While there’s no room to go exceedingly deep into any one concept, that also seems to be by design – this book best serves as a quick guide to all the facets of modern design thinking in one place.

The contemporary nature of the book is also quite refreshing. While one could read the classics like The Design of Everyday Things or Don’t Make Me Think (and Berkun does recommend these for additional context), the value of this book lies heavily in its synthesis of decades of evolution in the design space. Berkun walks the reader through developments in systems thinking, designing for inclusion, and even design ethics – calling out some of the recent unintended consequences from tech industry actions, which I appreciate. The result is that the book becomes a highly relevant read for anyone wanting to evaluate design work in the modern era, as well as an invaluable handbook to avoid pitfalls of design from the past.

The book is also resolutely and immediately applicable by designers and non-designers alike. (Though Berkun does fairly argue that everyone is a designer in some sense.)  For those who call design their craft: Berkun challenges you to up your game by asking the right questions, considering your designs in the context of your organization, and expanding your view of who you design for and who you bring along your journey. For everyone else, you’re invited to demand more from your products and experiences. You’re given the tools and the language to critically evaluate everything around you and understand how they might have come to be. Hence, this book strives to make progress towards a better designed world for all.

There are some minor flaws worth mentioning. The book does not present a natural flow from topic to topic that I could tell, leading me to get lost in some chapters and forgetting what concept was being discussed. Perhaps this is appropriate as there is no narrative arc here, just a handy collection of design wisdom that you will need to use the table of contents to look up. I also found the language to be a bit too casual in the early chapters, with a few irrelevant (parenthesized) pieces of side commentary that distracted from the main points – but nothing too egregious.

Overall, the book was a wonderful refresher of concepts from my own background in software and human-computer interaction as well as an inspiring reminder to always seek continuous improvement (and understanding!) in the experiences of daily life. I highly recommend it for anyone working in any creative industry but also for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of design in general.

You can pick up the book for yourself (or your design team) here:

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