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.

Buy it on Amazon.com

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.

nigel-cross-design-model

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.

Buy it on Amazon.com
(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.

Buy it on Amazon.com

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.

Buy it on Amazon.com

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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Book Notes: “Stubborn Attachments”

Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals
By Tyler Cowen
Stripe Press, 2018

Economists are among the only people in our society who have a measure of influence on policy and who think about problems from a systemic perspective. So designers working on complex information environments should pay attention to them — especially when they set their sights on the long term, as Tyler Cowen does on Stubborn Attachments.

When thinking about policy, Mr. Cowen says, a little voice inside his head nudges him to consider only short-term, small improvements. In what amounts to a thesis statement, he explains:

I would … like to be more suspicious of our little voice in favor of supreme short-run pragmatism. I wish to suggest that it is a vice, the thinking man’s equivalent of the savage’s short-run gratification. It is our latest adaptive mechanism for feeling good about ourselves, at the expense of letting Rome burn. I suggest that we should instead turn our political energies to thinking about the long-run fortunes of our civilization. That means focusing on the future of freedom, wealth, science, and healthy, well-functioning institutions governed by rules and rights.

The book argues that securing a future for these things requires that we boost economic growth, make civilization more stable, and deal with environmental problems. To do so, Mr. Cowen proposes that we maximize the rate of sustainable growth and constrain the quest for higher economic growth in favor of “inviolable human rights.” The bulk of the (short) book justifies these positions with clear, rational arguments.

In our time of highly polarized civic discourse, Stubborn Attachments comes across as a refreshing, non-political take on complex (and pressing) problems. It does so by arguing lucidly from first principles. Even if you disagree with its conclusions, the book serves as a model of how to present difficult positions on complex issues to a non-technical audience in a non-partisan manner.

Buy it on Amazon.com

Book Notes: “Make It New”

Make It New: The History of Silicon Valley Design
By Barry M. Katz, with a foreword by John Maeda
The MIT Press, 2015

It’s been almost five years since my family and I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. We had several reasons for doing so, but foremost among them for me was the fact that the Bay Area is home to the world’s most important information environments. As a designer in this space, I wanted to be where the most interesting, impactful, and lucrative technology is being created. That meant moving to Northern California.

In this part of the world, good design is seen as a prerequisite for technology to succeed. But this wasn’t always the case. The first designers in the Valley (many of whom were drawn here, like me, by the “exceedingly fast pace and dynamic instability of the product development cycle within a rapidly changing technology environment”) had to prove their mettle. What was seen at first as a field for those who couldn’t make it as engineers — as a way to add superficial appeal to products that were first and foremost engineering marvels — would eventually become the force that puts human concerns at the core of technological products.

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Book Notes: “Seeing What Others Don’t”

Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights
By Gary Klein
Public Affairs, 2013

I’m often called on to facilitate workshops with executives, managers, individual contributors, and third-party partners. These are costly engagements — not because of my fees, but because getting groups of busy people to focus their attention on a single thing for two or three days comes at the expense of many other things they have to do. The upside: good workshops can generate incredibly valuable insights. So I’m always looking for ways of becoming better at creating the conditions that allow insights to emerge. Seeing What Others Don’t is a guide for doing so, and one of the most useful books I’ve read on the subject.

It starts with a valuable insight: performance improvements usually result from decreasing errors and increasing insights. However, most organizations focus on the former (Klein cites Six Sigma as a notable example), but not enough on the latter. (“When we put too much energy into eliminating mistakes, we’re less likely to gain insights. Having insights is a different matter from preventing mistakes.”)

The book seeks to answer three fundamental questions:

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