Books on Design Theory or Principles?

It’s been a full five years since I started working professionally in the ID field, and at my current job I’m realizing the need to be able to speak in a more clear and articulate way about my design decisions, especially as I attempt to transition to a more senior or managerial role in the future.

For example, I’d like to be able to explain why I drew a certain curve, or used a certain radius or proportion in a more articulate way than “It looks good that way”. I’m looking for ways to bring some reasoning behind the design decisions I intuitively make.

Do you have any recommendations for any books that can help me understand what makes good design, good? How do you make your designs less subjective?

  1. American Revolution Bicentennial Standards Manual
  2. This Brutal World
  3. Dear Data

Hope this helps

“It looks good that way”

In Holland we as designers speaking to management may often use the phrase ‘It is form-technically sound’ instead.

Prof. Kees Dorst wrote a nice book about this called ’ Understanding Design’ .

We often also refer to relatable terms like ‘it has more appeal’, ’ more pop’ or ‘has more body’ and if you can back it up with research, even better.

What you really want to do is at the start of each project, set out clear design intentions so that you can at the end convince management that the project fulfilled what it sought to achieve.

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I didn’t learn this from books, but instead from working with skilled senior designers, creative directors, and design executives. I try to put as many objective frameworks around aesthetics. Here is where having a tight Design Language System comes in really handy. As a consultant I’ve been doing a lot of this kind of work for clients, I’m working on an article about how they work for core77… just haven’t had time to finish it up.

Even without a DLS, you can start to hang some of those objective frameworks yourself. The goal of this is to create language to talk about form that is more intellectual and less reactive (I like it, I don’t like, yay, yuk). When subjective language dominates the conversation, the HIPPO always wins (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). You want to avoid this at all cost because in almost all situations the HIPPO is not aesthetically trained or sensitive.

Different frameworks work in different situations, here are a few I typically use:

  1. establish agreed upon brand principles.

What are the priorities and strengths of the brand and its product portfolio? Is it fun? What does fun look like across industries. Is it safety? What does safety look like across all industries. Is it Fun + Safety? What other things in the world have combined those attributes. To do this you will need to do a series of internal stakeholder interviews with execs, product managers, marketing folks and engineers. Once you establish and get alignment on that, you can have a conversation about what forms achieve and represent those principles most effectively. You can do simple force rank exercises, or set up 2x2’s to rank different principles and objectively get to an agreed upon solution.

  1. establish agreed upon user personas.

I usually break this into at least 2 but no more then 5 personas. Typically an “aspirational persona” representing the tip of the spear user and a “target persona” representing the higher sales volume. Fill out the persona with as much detail as reasonable, and build a “closet” of other items in that persona’s life. Once alignment is established with the other decision makers in the process the conversation should be about what designs fit the persona’s best. Use first names with personas as much as possible. Instead of saying “I like this one” the conversation should feel more like “I think Tony would gravitate toward solutions like 1 and 4 and not 2 and 3”

  1. establish gaps in retail

This one is really dependent on the market and the organization’s risk tolerance, but sometimes I’ll put together a document showing the similarities in all of the competitive product. I did this a few years ago with sound bars which was easy, they are all black rectangles, so the opportunity was in making anything that was not purely rectangular and not purely black. Then the challenge is to what degree do we need to break that to be successful but still successful. It turned out that just a rounded front view and a grey cloth with a metallic weave was enough to move sales, but at least we could have a conversation about vs just throwing out crazy shapes or making another tee too black rectangle.

Those are the simplest ones I like to use. There are a few more complicated methods that require more dedicated time, resources, and money like foundational ethnographic interviews. I tend to avoid user testing of aesthetics as much as possible. I have never seen that lead to anything interesting. When I pitch this as aDLS project to clients I tend to use a combination of ethnography, retailer interview, and internal stakeholder interviews to build up a shared knowledge set and break that into three lenses (internal, retail, and user), this usually helps to ensure as much internal buy in as possible… maybe I should write a book about this… :slight_smile:

Whilst I’ve stepped away from design practice recently, one book I found integral to my development as a designer was Elements of Design: Rowena Reed Kostellow and the Structure of Visual Relationships by Gail Greet Hannah. I feel it would help with some aesthetic vocabulary.

Thank you all for your reply and excellent suggestions. I placed an order on a few books. Looking forward to learning from them.

It seems like what I need to start focusing on is exactly as Ralph stated. I have to establish a clear design intent at the beginning of projects, and thanks Michael for expanding in great detail on the process of achieving that. I have a few questions about some of the processes that were listed but need to get back to work for now. I will make another post in a few days when I find some time to gather my thoughts. Thanks again!

Elements of Design was the fundamental book on this while I was a student.
It does approach design mostly from a designerly aesthetics perspective while a design also needs to make sense as a business sales point, fit into the lives of the people in your target market, and into current-day manufacturing processes. What Michael outlined is a great process, for more in-depth understanding read a few papers by Pieter Desmet or about Kansei Engineering.

A Designer’s Art by Paul Rand
Perverse Optimist by Tibor Kalman
rules of colors and designing by shirazsun

Design After Modernism is a great way to practice the vocabulary of design for its impact on new product development and aesthetics

That is from 1988, would you not recommend a more recent publication of Thackara, such as ‘How to Thrive in the Next Economy: Designing Tomorrow’s World Today’. I have never read Thackara, or Burdek for that matter, because it sounds all too eco-utopian without any sense for design either. In that area I prefer reading Buckminster-Fuller because he did master his craft and profession.

Went on a search for VBL/DLS on the forums and am thus bumping this thread. Check out ‘Design Systems’, by Kholmatova.

Also worthwhile finding and watching yo’s presentation on DLS, via IDSA on Vimeo.

I’ve found that following a process like Michael and Ralph described* grants you design freedom, and professional respect. Like ”this guy knows more than I do about this”.

While using lingo from Roweena’s ”Elements of design” won’t get you invited to stay for lunch, because it’s way to abstract art-speak for most people to handle. Unless you’re pitching to other artists I suppose, my experience is almost entirely with left-brainers.

*I would add ”brand” to ”internal, retail and user”. I realise it goes under ”internal”, but by invoking ”brand” you get Marketing attention and Engineering of your back.