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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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.

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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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Book Notes: “Architectural Intelligence”

Architectural Intelligence: How Designers and Architects Created the Digital Landscape
By Molly Wright Steenson
The MIT Press, 2017

We are now far enough into the information revolution that we can examine critical influences with perspective. Architectural Intelligence surfaces key contributions of architectural thinking and doing towards the shaping of current information environments. It does so by examining the work of four influential architects: Christopher Alexander, Richard Saul Wurman, Cedric Price, and Nicholas Negroponte.

During the early years of digital computing, many architects saw computing as a better way to manage complex problem-solving in traditional architectural practice. However, some architects recognized they were dealing with a different type of architecture, one where information played a more significant role than merely augmenting design practice. The architects profiled in this book were the first — and most influential — to do so:

  • Christopher Alexander, perhaps the best known of the four, originated (and then transcended) the idea of pattern languages. Looking to systematize architectural design, he was mostly shunned by the architectural profession. His work resonated more with software engineers, so Alexandrian thinking has influenced modern software development practices.
  • Richard Saul Wurman vies with Alexander as the best-known of the bunch, although his fame comes from an achievement only tangentially related to the subject of the book: he founded the TED conference. But Wurman’s multi-faceted career is important for other reasons, not the least of which is recognizing information as an architectural material that, when structured correctly, can foster understanding.
  • Cedric Price was unknown to me before reading this book. (Which intrigues me, given that my background is in architecture.) The object of most of Price’s projects was a built environment, albeit always peculiar ones that aimed to exploit the systemic capabilities of new information technologies.
  • Nicholas Negroponte, is the founder of the MIT Media Lab (and its predecessor, the MIT Architecture Machine Group, which is the focus of this chapter.) Negroponte and his collaborators at the AMG laid the foundations for modern conceptions of what it means to inhabit information and how we can effectively collaborate with artificially intelligent systems.

Were these people “architects” in the sense most people think of? Of the four, only Price and Alexander focused on designing built environments during their careers. (And the latter’s buildings have had little impact in the domain of architecture. While in architecture school, I recall being advised to read A Pattern Language but avoid Alexander’s buildings.) While definitely architectural, the work of all four pushed boundaries for which we (still) lack adequate terms. Wright Steenson captures the issue succinctly:

As Alexander, Wurman, Price, and Negroponte began to conceive of their work in terms of informational processing and computational practices, they found themselves in a liminal space between the two fields, which caused them to question whether what they were doing was architectural at all, or something in opposition to it, or something altogether different.

Those of us who design information environments still inhabit this liminal space. Alas, many among us are not aware of it. By examining the pioneering work of these four architects, Architectural Intelligence offers insights into what it means to architect information environments today — and in the future.

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Book Notes: “The Organized Mind”

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload
By Daniel J. Levitin
Dutton, 2014

If you’re like me (and many other people), you have at least one “junk” drawer in your home. You know what I mean: a place where you store assorted batteries, screws, cables, pens (functional and otherwise), and so on — usually somewhere out of sight.

Far from something to be embarrassed by, junk drawers represent an innate human skill. They’re the result of how we make sense of the world: by categorizing things, establishing distinctions between them. The lightbulbs over here, cleaning products over there, office supplies in that other place. And the rest? The stuff that doesn’t fit neatly into a category? The junk drawer.

The fact junk drawers are common doesn’t result from them being the best way to organize stuff. If you’ve ever been at a loss trying to find something in your home, only to find it later among the many knick-knacks stuffed out of sight, you’ve experienced this firsthand.

The Organized Mind is a deep — yet accessible — dive into the neuroscience of how we make sense of the world. It explains how we (our bodies, including the all-important nervous system) establish distinctions between things (and people) so we can remember where they are, what they are, how to best interact with them, etc.

While the science behind all of this is fascinating, the book doesn’t stop at science. The author makes the subject practical by translating scientific insights into actionable heuristics. For example, he offers three organization rules to help you minimize the junk drawer problem:

  • Organization rule 1: A mislabeled item or location is worse than an unlabeled item.
  • Organization rule 2: If there is an existing standard, use it.
  • Organization rule 3: Don’t keep what you can’t use.

Some of this may seem obvious, but it’s good to understand the reasons why it works. For people like myself, who categorize things for a living, it’s especially useful to grok our nervous systems’ organizational abilities at a low level.

That said, the book covers a lot of ground. So much so, that in parts I found it difficult to follow how specific subjects connected to the greater whole. Ironically, I found The Organized Mind to be something of an intellectual junk drawer. That said, junk drawers are not without their uses — and pleasures.

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