Review by David Sherwin

The further I’ve progressed in my career as designer, the harder it’s become to share with others exactly what I do.

First, I managed layout at a magazine and bootstrapped a few websites in thrilling Adobe PageMill. Then, within a design studio, I was responsible for creating brands and annual reports—with little to no formal training to the otherwise. Add in a number of years in advertising and marketing, leaven it with a few more of user research and wireframing, and set to “Puree”. When I try to describe to my family what I do nowadays as an interaction designer, the confusion level continues to increase.

Now I don’t need to try and explain anymore. I can just send them a copy of Warren Berger’s extraordinarily well-written book, Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, Your Business, and Maybe Even the World (Amazon: US|CA|UK|DE).

This is the first book about the process of design as it’s practiced at its highest levels in our profession, written by an expert journalist for the layperson, that describes exactly how designers think about and view the world. It is the product of hundreds of interviews with today’s top designers, across all major disciplines of design, cross-referenced with deep reading into the texts that have informed the growth of our profession, then distilled into plain English that anyone can easily understand. Along the way, stories regarding OXO Good Grips, the One Laptop Per Child program, the Truth anti-smoking campaign, Bruce Mau’s Massive Change exhibit, Architecture for Humanity, Proctor & Gamble, TOMS Shoes, and many others are woven through the narrative, illustrating key points regarding design concepts, principles, and sustainability practices with illustrations and sketches. It also includes a good number of everyday people who came to the design profession late in life, after they had their first “glimmer” moment.

Berger’s goal for Glimmer, put forward in the introduction to the book, states it plain:

“…design is applicable to just about any challenge—and its principles are accessible to anyone. If we can gain a better understanding of the ways designers think and work, it may enable us to do what designers tend to do so well: to recognize that glimmer of potential around us and within us, and to build on those nascent possibilities as we set out fo design a better business or a better life.”

This book is jam-packed with strong material, so I’ll focus on a few key passages that piqued my attention.

What is design, really?

The book is structured around a series of principles that Berger drew from his interviews, as well as Bruce Mau’s An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth. (Bruce Mau is called out on the cover as a major contributor, and wrote a series of brief essays that are woven through the text.)

Design Is

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The first principle, “Ask stupid questions,” is put to great effect in Berger applying his principles to the process he used in crafting the book, right down to asking the following stupid question: “What is design?” As Berger puts it, “the problem is not a lack of good working definitions, but rather an overabundance of them.”

We are also swimming upstream, against the more conventional definition of design as a function of visual and aesthetic appeal:

“In the business world, the word design has been almost synonymous with style. Until recently, designers were tasked with making products look better and creating eye-catching packaging and communications… But the problem, at least in the minds of some designers, was that ‘style’ became a kind of ghetto for them.”

Berger then shares thinking from Donald Norman, Tim Brown from IDEO, and other design luminaries that counter folk wisdom about design as a discretely visual practice. It’s refreshing to see a writer call out on the carpet how we spend so much time describing the shape of our elephant-sized profession, rather than aiming for a shared understanding of what universal attributes inform our working methods.

Embracing ambiguity and complexity

Berger’s second principle is, “Jump fences.” When we are told that a problem has been unsolved, or seems impossible, our first thought should be, “Why?” After asking stupid questions, we can begin to formulate better answers. The more we live through this process, the more likely we are to succeed.

Show Shovel

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Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management, calls this the upward spiral of solving problems, “wherein the more you do it, the more you can do it”:

“An experienced designer will look at an ‘impossible’ problem and his/her reaction… ‘will be, “Ah, I know this game. I’ve been in this situation before. It’s fine if there are no existing good answers out there, because my job is to design a better answer.” And they proceed with confidence from there.'”

But Martin also calls out here that a fundamental attribute of providing better answers is in embracing ambiguity and complexity:

“Most of us, Martin notes, try to simplify problems and make clear-cut choices; we strive to construct a single, clear ‘mental model’ when we’re thinking about a challenge and trying to envision changes and solutions. But a designer… is comfortable holding conflicting ideas in his/her head at the same time. ‘The designer lets a lot of different models float around in the mind at the same time. And they select parts and pieces from those existing models to create new and better models.'”

This gift of jumping fences—which allows us to provide insight through what John Thackara calls “smart recombinations”—is the most crucial tool in the designer’s arsenal.

Brand experience frameworks and Bluebeard the Pirate

One of my favorite passages in Glimmer regards how we, as designers, are asked to regularly describe what makes up a designed experience – the sum of all the interactions a person has with a company’s products, services, marketing, and so forth. After describing the Compelling Experience Framework, an in-depth research study took on by Doblin Inc. to attempt to describe the stages of a consumer experience, Berger shifts to a discussion he had with the designer Brian Collins, who avoids comlex-looking charts and graphs in describing how to envision a compelling experience:

“Just imagine yourself back in [the 1700s], sailing in a Spanish galleon on the Caribbean… you look out and notice another ship in the distance. When you peer through the microscope to get a better look at that ship, you see a flag flying. As it gets closer, you can make out what’s on the flag – a skull and crossbones. As soon as you see that symbol, you know exactly what kind of an experience is in store for you… [the pirate flag] was a brand promise… and the promise was: You’re f****d.
Pirate Ship Branding

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We can spend an inordinate amount of time describing what kind of experiences we want to design, but the actual impact of those experiences leads to how brands are actually manifested in the world. That is where they gain substance and meaning over time. We could call this: Less talk, more wow.


Another key point in Glimmer that was quite potent was a section entitled “How to remain ‘stupid’ forever.”

It’s become a truism that in order to succeed in a design capacity, you need to be a T-shaped person. In Fast Company a few years ago, Tim Brown said that T-shaped people have

“a principal skill that describes the vertical leg of the T — they’re mechanical engineers or industrial designers. But they are so empathetic that they can branch out into other skills, such as anthropology, and do them as well. They are able to explore insights from many different perspectives and recognize patterns of behavior that point to a universal human need.”
Zig Zag

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In Glimmer, discussions with Bruce Mau yielded this new analogy for the T-shaped life:

“The answer, Mau suggests, is to intentionally and constantly ‘…keep moving away from what you know.’ People tend to design their lives and careers so that they are usually on firm, familiar turf, intellectually speaking; they go with what they know… Mau, and many other designers, opt to go wide as well as deep… this is what makes designers T-shaped in their knowledge, though over time, their knowledge base becomes more like a series of T’s linked together.”

John Maeda concurs with this point of view, which for many designers is a struggle:

“It was the kind of thing where you start to wonder, ‘Am I an idiot. What’s going on?’… But [one of my teachers in Japan] explained that when you get older, the beauty of the ‘broad’ method is that you’ve built this great, grand, symmetrical heap, kind of like Mount Fuji, that is solid and cannot be moved. Whereas in the Western approach, the one thing you’ve made keeps going up and up, but it’s thin and fragile, and if one thing is wrong, the whole hill falls over.”
Kick Start

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I wish this book had existed when I graduated from college, as it would have helped me rationalize my curiosity.

These are just a few moments from Glimmer. I could write a book paraphrasing this book, and will now restrain myself from doing so.

Since so many different perspectives are shared throughout Glimmer, I could see everyone from design students to seasoned professionals learning something new by reviewing this book. As a practical philosophy for the role of design within and outside the confines of its oft-corporate context, Glimmer taps into the primary vein of where our profession is now, and where it’s heading in the future. Now go read it.

[xrr rating=5/5]

You can buy Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, Your Business, and Maybe Even the World from Amazon (US|CA|UK|DE) or The Designer’s Review of Books store.

About the Reviewer

David Sherwin is Senior Interaction Designer at frog design in Seattle and maintains the blog ChangeOrder: Business + Process of Design. His first book, on coming up with better design ideas faster, will be released by HOW Design Press in November 2010.

About the author

Andy Polaine

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  • I haven’t read Glimmer so my comment is in response to comments you have made in your review.

    First, there is a kind of hagiography that goes on around “Designers” and “design thinking”. It implies that designers have a special gift, that the way they think is unique and other disciplines don’t or can’t do this. Yet we believe we can teach design. This implies that design thinking is a learned skill. The openness to ideas, the willingness to explore, to propose multiple solutions, to be uncomfortable with the haziness of the design problem and the process, is something that is actively taught to them. I taught design for a decade so believe I can say this with some basis.

    Second: You talk about the “T” person that designers need to be. The idea that designers can branch out into any field (e.g. anthropology) and “do it well” has long struck me as insufferably arrogant. It’s an extraordinary leap to think that by virtue of being a Designer one can master another discipline without committing the same time and effort to studying it that a subject matter expert has put in. Do we really believe that because we “think as designers” we can circumvent the concentrated study and immersion in the topic that an anthropologist with a PhD has undergone? Architects seem to be particularly arrogant in this respect. Borrowing ideas willy-nilly, usually only superficially understood, from another profession does not make one any kind of expert in that subject.

    Design thinking is a very good approach to complex problems that is equally applicable to a wide range of fields, but it certainly doesn’t confer mystical powers on the designer. It’s time designers stopped thinking they are ‘special’ in this regard and begin to acknowledge the expertise that lies in other disciplines and not trivialise this expertise by the claiming parity with it. Use it, yes; learn about it, yes; draw on it for inspiration, yes; but do not mistake this for having gained expertise in it.

  • I haven’t read Glimmer either (I didn’t write the review on this one) and I do partially agree with you. Even when you say “It’s time designers stopped thinking they are ‘special’ in this regard and begin to acknowledge the expertise that lies in other disciplines and not trivialise this expertise by the claiming parity with it.”

    If only that were the case in the other direction. Designers regularly face the dismissal of their abilities either through the same notion of ‘talent’ (as in “it’s easy for you because you’re talented,” thus negating the hard work that goes into designing), through the idea that everyone can do it and/or the technology does it all for us. There is very little respect for design from other disciplines across the range from business management through to the sciences and even in the arts (where it’s too commercial). Yet everyone encounters, is affected by and consumes many design artifacts every day.

    I’m not sure designers in this regard are claiming that they have the same skills as the experts in another field, but I do think it’s not unreasonable to suggest design has parity with those other disciplines.

  • I have started to separate “design thinking” from “design making” in how I talk about this subject, because I think that doing the actual making and tinkering is where you learn (through the work). And engaging with the latter repeatedly is where you can become an expert over a career. Designers are measured by what they make, not by what they think. And no matter how many rockets I build, I’m not going to be a good rocket scientist. But after a few years of effort, I may make a rocket concept that a rocket engineer hadn’t thought of, and they can steal from my thinking to make a novel rocket idea (with their much deeper insight into how to make rockets.) Being very good as a design generalist or thinker comes at the expense of being an expert at the creation of pretty much anything. As a result, you find yourself drawing on the talents of experts, whether it be in the realm of aesthetics (hiring an illustrator, photographer, or writer), development (technologist, architect, etc.), research (anthropologist, statistician), and so forth.

    I do agree that it can be quite arrogant to assume that delving into new areas of expertise quickly will make you an expert in fulfilling tasks in that discipline. But spending time expanding your familiarity with a wider range of disciplines makes you much better at planning how those disciplines are best used, by the best talent, to solve a client’s problem.

  • David, I very much like your point in the rocket example. Perhaps it’s more about knowing enough about another discipline to be able to draw on it meaningfully and usefully – being able to engage experts and get things out of them they didn’t know they had. I realise on rereading that I let fly with something of a “pet hate rant” and I am not really suggesting it’s a bad idea all round. But I AM saying it’s a very bad idea when it happens in a slipshod, arrogant or trivial way.

    “Editor”, I agree that design/designers frequently get little recognition for what they do. They are often spectacularly bad at explaining it! They don’t always seem to be particularly aware of what they do and how their approach differs from what others do, so they miss the opportunity to ‘explain’ design as being more than ‘making stuff look nice’. Which brings us right back to the book, I guess. (Thanks for the email btw and for rescuing my original comment from your spam filter!)