Book reviews

Reviews of The Design Way (2nd edition):

Book Review: The Design Way

By Gerd Waloszek, Design & Front Line Apps, SAP AG – May 21, 2013
"This review takes a personal look at Harold G. Nelson's and Erik Stolterman's book The Design Way – Intentional Change in an Unpredictable World (2nd Ed.). Not having read the first edition, I will base my review solely on the second edition and also will not discuss any changes from the first to the second edition."

The design way : intentional change in an unpredictable world (2nd ed.)
Nelson H., Stolterman E., The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012. 296 pp. 
Reviewed: 01/28/13
Reviewer: Joan Horvath

I find it difficult to categorize this little book. This is perhaps appropriate, since “design” is equally hard to describe, and is often a messy, awkward, and very nonlinear endeavor. The authors view design as distinct from both science and art. They see science as driven by a scientist satisfying curiosity, creating value by adding to the body of all knowledge. They see art as driven by a need for self-expression, creating value by adding to the insights of others about the human condition. In contrast, they say, design is about solving a problem, typically a problem of some other person, and as such is a service to others that cannot occur in isolation.

Most of the rest of the book is then dedicated to discussing how to think about and create some structure to perform that service. The authors employ the metaphor of the designer as connoisseur: “It is impossible to become a wine connoisseur by only studying theories of wine and wine making--tasting is crucial and necessary.” The book offers several ways of thinking about tying together the inputs from “wine theory” and “wine tasting” in a good design.

As an engineer, I am currently collaborating with a colleague who was trained as a sculptor, and reading the book caused many little shocks of recognition. For example, the authors posit that Western society often values observation over imagination. As a result, we tend to say we discovered fire or a scientific theory, although obviously fire and the physical phenomena in question had been around a long time before they were “discovered.” Designers, however, have no such compunctions and would probably say they designed fire or a theory; the book argues that this is a more accurate point of view. Being aware of how words and worldviews frame one’s role can make a big difference in how effectively one operates in interdisciplinary creative interactions.

This book is recommended for engineers and scientists wanting to step outside their assumptions and consider what inadvertent constraints they may have on their own creativity. It might also be interesting for MBA students who expect to go into fields where they will interact with designers. It is probably a little philosophical for most undergraduates, since they might get lost trying to learn the terminology on display and may not yet have the experience for the moments of self-recognition that are the power of this little book.

This is the second edition of the book. I have not seen the first edition, and so can’t make any comparisons. This edition is in some ways akin to Csikszentmihalyi’s work on creativity and flow [1], and could be used for similar audiences. Reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs [2] and then analyzing Jobs’ process with this book might make a nice graduate seminar for engineers, scientists, or business students. This book has the virtue of brevity, for which it commits the sin of omitting detailed stories and examples. It has simple graphics that would lend themselves to being drawn on a whiteboard during discussions. If you want a short book that will make you think about how you interact with colleagues, or if you want to make your graduate students reconsider their assumptions, spend a few hours with Nelson and Stolterman.

1) Csikszentmihalyi, M. Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. Harper Collins, New York, NY, 1996.
2) Isaacson, W. Steve Jobs. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2011.
 Review #: CR140878

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The review below was written by S. Skaggs and published in "Current reviews for academic libraries"

Reviews of The Design Way (1st edition):

Some Reviewer's Comments

The Design Way is a fascinating and provocative look at what most would assume, incorrectly, to be a well-understood topic. Nelson and Stolterman identify and explore rich concepts that are worthy of much attention by anyone associated with design, professional designers, educational and organizational leaders, in fact, any user of a design. They do so in a way that illuminates the thinking and actions of designers and carefully explores underlying beliefs, values, and assumptions. This can and no doubt will prompt the reader to examine and challenge current practices regardless of field or setting and whether he or she is an experienced designer, novice, or user. The authors reveal how design can provide powerful guidance to our thinking and acting in the complex contexts that are now the norm rather than exception. The book is for both professionals in design fields and general readers. A careful reading offers the potential to change not only how we look at professional activity but the ways in which we live.
Gordon Rowland,

Chair, Department of Organizational Communication, Learning and Design
Roy H. Park School of Communication
Ithaca College


You have achieved far more than I have seen anyone else do in articulating what the design process actually involves as opposed to what people assert that it involves, and giving the subject a proper philosophical grounding, so that it can take its rightful place as a substantial subject of human endeavour.

Jim Platts

Lecturer, Institute for Manufacturing
Examiner, Manufacturing Leaders' Programme
University of Cambridge

I must admit that I was quite taken by the first section of the book, particularly the Prelude and the First Tradition. These sections of the book, in my opinion, set the stage for thinking about instructional design in qualitatively different ways than I had seen in any other book or article.  These two sections alone make the book worth publishing.

Russ Osguthorpe

Chair, Instructional Psychology and Technology
Brigham Young University

I found the manuscript engaging, well-written, and thought provoking. It is certainly an ambitious and overdue effort to find what all of the design disciplines share, and to clarify what design thinking and making entails. Such things get a lot of lip service among designers, but we rarely make the careful distinctions and precise definitions that you have made here. I can see the book especially useful in courses that focus on design thinking or that combine students from various design disciplines.

Tom Fisher

Dean, College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture
University of Minnesota