Book Notes: The Ride of a Lifetime

The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of The Walt Disney Company
By Robert Iger
Random House, 2019

In the early 1980s, Disney was in trouble. Its movies weren’t resonating with the public. It had invested a lot of money into a theme park – EPCOT Center – that wasn’t meeting expectations. Having lost touch with public tastes, Disney had become a target for corporate raiders, who were looking to buy the company to dismantle it. It was a sad time for Disney fans and shareholders.

It seems hard to believe, given that Disney is now the largest and most powerful entertainment company in the world. The change in the company’s fortunes can be attributed mostly to the leadership of two men: Michael Eisner, who was Disney’s CEO from 1984-2005, and Bob Iger, who succeeded him. Now the latter has written a leadership guide in the guise of a memoir that explains how he did it.

I’m wary of most corporate leader memoirs – especially if they’re in the entertainment industry. These folks are often masters of public relations, and their memoirs tend to be carefully crafted to burnish their public images. These books often come across as being in service to their authors’ egos. Mr. Iger’s book is the opposite. He often discusses how keeping his ego in check has been essential to his leadership style. He’s frank about his mistakes and gracious in sharing the praise for his successes.

The successes have been many. The Disney company has grown considerably during his tenure, mostly through the acquisition of four companies: Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and 21st Century Fox. The book covers each of these transactions in-depth, devoting a chapter to each. It also covers the company’s transition from Mr. Eisner’s leadership, which was a fraught and contentious time. As the second-in-command during a difficult stretch at the company, Mr. Iger wasn’t seen as the obvious successor. That he was hired for the job came down to his formulating a clear three-part strategy for the company:

  • Devoting most of its time and capital to creating high-quality branded content (i.e., intellectual property),
  • embracing technology, even at the cost of disrupting existing businesses, and
  • becoming truly global.

In hindsight, these may seem like obvious directions for the company, but the book does an excellent job of conveying how challenging it can be for organizations to accept large-scale change. Disney is a company that values its past, which can make it difficult for it to transform itself. It’s to Mr. Iger’s credit that he recognized early on how technological changes were posed to disrupt Disney’s business and put the company ahead of the curve.

All of this sounds like standard business leader memoir territory. What pushes this book above the norm is the fact that Mr. Iger has extracted concrete lessons from his career and articulated them succinctly throughout the book. An appendix at the end compiles these lessons. This makes The Ride of a Lifetime more than a memoir; it’s an engaging guide to good leadership produced by a good leader with real-world credentials.

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Book Notes: Strategic Design

Strategic design: Eight essential practices every strategic designer must master
By Giulia Calabretta, Gerda Gemser, and Ingo Karpen
BIS Publishers, 2016

Design isn’t just good for making better things, it’s also good for making things better. In other words, design can be both tactical and strategic. Many designers come to the field with a tactical mindset, and as they grow in their careers find themselves drawn towards higher-level challenges that add greater value to their organizations. This book offers frameworks that allow them to transition to a more systemic and strategic practice.

At the core of the practice is the alignment between three core domains:

The premise of this book is that successful strategic design solutions emerge at the intersection of what is desirable from a customer/user perspective, viable from a business perspective and feasible from a technological/organizational point of view. Blending and aligning these three very different facets for an optimal intersection is not an organic process, and so needs to be managed explicitly.

As promised in the title, the book offers eight practices that are central to achieving this alignment:

  1. Defining and articulating a clear vision
  2. Co-creation and prototyping
  3. Assessing the current circumstances (e.g. ownership, visioning) in the organization
  4. Shedding light on the design process itself
  5. Creating alignment through storytelling
  6. Evaluating feasibility
  7. Evaluating viability
  8. Building lasting design capabilities in the organization

There’s a chapter focused on each, all authored by different teams of practitioners and academics. While this variety of voices could be a liability, in this book’s case it’s a strength, since the various authors present a range of case studies (mostly from Europe) that illustrate the practice highlighted in each chapter. It makes for a rich and actionable compendium of key strategic design practices.

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Book Notes: “Design Unbound”

Design Unbound: Designing for Emergence in a White Water World
By Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown
The MIT Press, 2018

Most people think design is about making better things: a more engaging website, a more usable gadget, a more satisfying experience, a bigger logo, etc. More enlightened folks will quote Steve Jobs, saying that design isn’t how something looks but how it works. While that sentiment is indeed a deeper take on design, it still misses an important point: design is not just about making things, it’s also a way of knowing and intervening in the world. And it’s a special way, since it allows us to tackle what Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber dubbed wicked problems.

Most designers (or the general public, for that matter) don’t see design in this light. This book aims to change that. The preface to the first volume spells out the works’ goal:

Design Unbound set out to define a new tool set for the world we find ourselves in — a world that is rapidly changing, increasingly interconnected, and where, because of this increasing interconnectivity, everything is more contingent on everything else happening around it — much more so than ever before.

The authors use the analogy of white water kayaking to describe complex decision-making under such dynamic conditions. Navigating a turbulent river calls for a completely different approach than doing so in a calm lake. “The interesting thing about white water rivers is that they are navigable,” they state, “but under new terms.”

What new terms? Design Unbound offers a set of design practices and mental models – “an offspring of complexity science, married to architectural design” — to help us navigate complex challenges. These “tools” include a reframing of design briefs, critique, ambiguity, skills, emergence, world-building, networks, and “intervals of possibility.” The book also features several meta-tools, which reframe design practice itself for work at a higher level of abstraction.

These concepts are presented in five books over two volumes. The authors suggest that the work doesn’t need to be read linearly, and offer a useful (and beautiful) guide to its content:

A map to the content in Design Unbound

This is a map for pragmatic design-doing — not for making widgets better (or even better widgets), but operating at a much higher, systemic level: that of social, economic, ecologic transformation. Design enables us to engage these domains through abductive reasoning, a different way of knowing (and acting in) the world than the better-known modalities of deductive and inductive reasoning. I first encountered this powerful idea in Nigel Cross’s Designerly Ways of Knowing, where it’s presented in the abstract. Design Unbound offers concrete practices that allow us to put it in action.

The two volumes of this work comprise a rich and valuable framework for tackling some of our most pressing and complex challenges. I’ll be returning to its pages often, both in my practice and teaching.

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Design Unbound, Vol. 1

Design Unbound, Vol. 2

Book Notes: “Digital Minimalism”

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World
By Cal Newport
Portfolio/Penguin, 2019

When people ask me about resources to help them make better use of digital technologies while avoiding distractions, I refer them to Cal Newport’s work. His previous book, Deep Work, argues that social media has a negative impact on our ability to do meaningful work, and argues for leaving it outright.

His most recent book, Digital Minimalism, takes a more nuanced — and in my opinion, practical — approach, one rooted in a philosophy of use for digital technologies:

as is becoming increasingly clear to those who have attempted these types of minor corrections, willpower, tips, and vague resolutions are not sufficient by themselves to tame the ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape—the addictiveness of their design and the strength of the cultural pressures supporting them are too strong for an ad hoc approach to succeed. In my work on this topic, I’ve become convinced that what you need instead is a full-fledged philosophy of technology use, rooted in your deep values, that provides clear answers to the questions of what tools you should use and how you should use them and, equally important, enables you to confidently ignore everything else.

Instead of doing without digital technologies altogether, Mr. Newport proposes that we embrace digital minimalism,

A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

He compares the approach to how the Amish people embrace new technologies. Many people assume that the Amish are against all tech. That’s not the case. Instead, they have a very thoughtful approach to new technologies that considers their impact on the community as a whole.

This requires trading off conveniences, but these conveniences often come at the expense of healthy social relationships. Mr. Newport describes the relationship between offline and online interactions as zero-sum: digital communications hamper our ability to communicate with people in physical space. Clearly we want to optimize for the latter.

Rather than quitting cold turkey, Mr. Newport proposes what he dubs the Digital Declutter Process:

  1. Put aside a thirty-day period during which you will take a break from optional technologies in your life.
  2. During this thirty-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful.
  3. At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.

He also offers a useful heuristic for going off particular technologies and apps:

consider the technology optional unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life.

In all, this is a useful and practical book. It’s my new go-to recommendation for people looking to be more effective amidst digital distractions.

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Book Notes: “Designerly Ways of Knowing”

Designerly Ways of Knowing
By Nigel Cross
Springer, 2006

Design is more than a way of making better products and services; it’s also an approach to work. More than that, it’s a particular way to probe and intervene in the world that allows us to tackle complex problems.

This idea of design as a meta-approach to problem-solving has been very influential in my work, in no small part through Nigel Cross’s Designerly Ways of Knowing. Prof. Cross is one of the key figures on this subject, and this slim volume is a compilation of his lectures and publication on the matter.

Designerly Ways of Knowing posits design as a third way of knowing the world, alongside science and the humanities. The book offers the following aspects of designerly ways of knowing:

  • Designers tackle “ill-defined” problems.
  • Their mode of problem-solving is “solution-focused.”
  • Their mode of thinking is “constructive.”
  • They use “codes” that translate abstract requirements into concrete objects.
  • They use these “codes” to both “read” and “write” in “object languages.”

Designers have much to contribute to organizations and societies beyond their individual design disciplines. Design isn’t just a way of making things; it’s a way of thinking that works through making and testing/reflecting on the resulting products.


Considering the practice of design at this more abstract level frees designers from the constraints of particular disciplines. It opens a broader scope of action for designers — and value for our stakeholders and clients.

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(Alas, it’s expensive.)

Book Notes: “The Evolution of Everything”

The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge
By Matt Ridley
HarperCollins, 2015

Designers are called to tackle increasingly complex problems. This requires that we understand how systems function and how they came to have the configurations we experience. I put it this way because complex systems (at least those that stand the test of time) don’t come into the world fully-formed. Instead, they evolve step-by-step from earlier, simpler systems. (See Gall’s Law.) Because of this, it’s essential that we understand the distinction between top-down and bottom-up structuring processes.

That distinction is what drew me to The Evolution of Everything. While not written specifically for designers, the book addresses this subject directly. Per its jacket, the book aims to “definitively [dispel] a dangerous, widespread myth: that we can command and control our world.” It pitches “the forces of evolution” against top-down forces for systems definition. What sorts of systems? Any and all of them: the universe, morality, life, genes, culture, the economy, technology, the mind, personality, education, population, leadership, government, religion, money, the internet.

There’s a chapter devoted to how top-down vs. bottom-up approaches have played out for each of these complex subjects. Mr. Ridley aims to demonstrate that advances in all of them have been the result of evolutionary forces, and the hindrances the result of intentional, planned actions. I don’t think I’m doing the author a disservice by describing it in such binary terms. In the book’s epilogue, Mr. Ridley states his thesis in its “boldest and most surprising form:”

Bad news is man-made, top-down, purposed stuff, imposed on history. Good news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves. The things that go well are largely unintended, the things that go badly are largely intended.

Examples given of the former include the Russian Revolution, the Nazi regime, and the 2008 financial crisis, while examples of the latter include the eradication of infectious diseases, the green revolution, and the internet.

While the whole is engaging and erudite, the earlier chapters, which deal with the evolution of natural systems, are stronger than the latter ones, which deal with the evolution of social systems. The book’s political agenda becomes increasingly transparent in these later chapters, often at the expense of the primary top-down vs. bottom-up thesis.

If you already buy into this agenda, you may come away convinced. I wasn’t. Sometimes bottom-up forces enable command-and-control structures and vice-versa. But you’ll find no such nuance here; the book offers its subject as an either-or proposition. This leads to some weak arguments. (E.g., “While we should honour individuals for their contributions, we should not really think that they make something come into existence that would not have otherwise.”)

Understanding the difference between top-down vs. bottom-up structuring is essential for today’s designers. The Evolution of Everything doesn’t entirely dispel the myth that we can command-and-control the world, but it does provide good examples of bottom-up emergence — especially in its earlier chapters. Still, I’d like a more nuanced take on this critical subject.

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Book Notes: “Rapid Problem Solving With Post-it® Notes”

Rapid Problem Solving With Post-it® Notes
By David Straker
Da Capo Press, 1997

Hang around long enough with designers, and you’ll realize that sticky notes are useful for more than note-taking; they can also be a useful thinking tool. More than that, they can be a useful group thinking tool: They allow a team to use the walls of a room as a shared cognitive artifact. The team can think better together if they have a way of externalizing information, and stickies are ideal — when used properly. This slender book teaches you how you use sticky notes properly.

It’s divided into three parts. The first shows you key principles for understanding problems, such as chunking related concepts, basic information organization patterns, etc. The second part explains the mechanics of using these principles with sticky notes. This includes several “tools” (techniques for thinking with stickies):

  • The Post-up
  • The Swap Sort
  • The Top-down Tree
  • The Bottom-up Tree
  • The Information Map
  • The Action Map

Finally, the third part of the book shows you how to use these tools to solve actual problems. It does this by offering a simple framework that allows you to tackle common project problems.

I’ve often described Rapid Problem Solving with Post-it® Notes as an operating system for stickies. It’s short, to the point, actionable, and game-changing. It’s one of the books I’ve gifted most.

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Book Notes: “Playing to Win”

Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works
By A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin
Harvard Business Review Press, 2013

You can’t successfully design something as complex as an information environment if you’re not clear on the strategic direction it seeks to support. Unfortunately, the subject of strategy can be hard for designers to grasp, perhaps because people often explain it only at very high levels.

That’s why Playing to Win is one of my favorite books on business strategy: it makes the subject concrete. The authors’ backgrounds have the right balance between theory and practice: A.G. Lafley is a former CEO of Procter & Gamble, and Roger L. Martin was dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto. Together they crafted strategies that helped P&G win in several markets, and the book is chock full of case studies.

So what is strategy, according to the authors?

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Book Notes: “Creative Selection”

Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs
By Ken Kocienda
St. Martin’s Press, 2018

Twenty-one years ago, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs returned to lead the company after over a decade of board-imposed exile. How he rescued Apple—which was ninety days away from bankruptcy at the time—has become the stuff of legend. The role of design in that resuscitation is central to the story. As a result, design has a much higher prominence in today’s business world than it did a couple of decades ago. Apple is very secretive about its internal processes; even a small glimpse into how the company goes about designing its products and services would be very valuable.

Creative Selection’s subtitle promises to reveal the company’s product design process. And not just any product, but the most important one in the company’s history: the iPhone. (The author is introduced in the cover as Former Principal Engineer of iPhone Software at Apple.)

Mr. Kocienda acknowledges early on that there is no codified approach to design inside Apple:

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