Great Design Thinkers: Frank Chimero on The Shape Of Design

This is the second in our series on contemporary design thinkers. In the first article, we explored how Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO, developed the ide…

Andrew Wilshere
Andrew Wilshere
Jul 17, 2017
Min Read

This is the second in our series on contemporary design thinkers. In the first article, we explored how Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO, developed the idea of “design thinking”. This time, we’re taking a look at the ideas of Frank Chimero, who describes himself as a multi-disciplinary designer, accidental writer, and lapsed illustrator. He’s best known for his beautiful and insightful book The Shape of Design, which has recently been reissued in paperback and is also available to read online for free. In this article, we’ll explore 4 key lessons from Chimero’s work.

1. Ask “Why” as well as “How”

1903 Advert for the Ford Model A. Photo: Public Domain

The Shape of Design is Frank Chimero’s meditation on the designer’s vocation, and he sets out by distinguishing between the “How” and the “Why” of design. 

“How” questions tend to be about skills, technique, and process. For example, asking “How will I design this typeface?” might lead me to answer, “I’ll sketch each letter, learn to use FontLab, finally figure out vectors, and then test the font in some documents.”

“Why” questions, however, can lead us to analyse the purpose of our work. If I ask, “Why am I designing this font?”, I’m much less likely to focus on process. Instead, I might respond, “Because type has an amazing power to communicate ideas, and I want to make my own mark on the world by creating something beautiful.”

By drawing us back to the bigger picture, Why questions can lead to insightful answers, and help us to generate our most creative ideas. Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, famously remarked: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Later in his book, Chimero explains that Ford asked Why, whereas his (imagined) customers asked How:

...the customer’s answer is staunchly loyal to the horse, the already established format of transportation. They are inside of the adjacent possible, and ask a How question: How can horses be better?

By asking a Why question instead, Ford didn’t think in terms of incremental improvements to the status quo, but instead considered people’s reasons for using horses, and dreamed about what could more effectively meet those motivating needs:

Asking a Why question leads us to a different conclusion: Why are horses important? Because they quickly and reliably get us from one place to another. A Why question defines our need and uses an objective to create a satisfactory outcome for the work. (Shape of Design, p. 56)

2. Beauty is functional

Grand Central Station, New York. Photo: Nicolai Berntsen/Unsplash

One of the most important lessons for new students is that design is neither purely aesthetic, nor purely functional. Chimero states that design has a bond with both art and commerce, and that part of the designer’s role is to bridge the two, just as they bridge the client and their audience.

As we explored in the previous article in this series, one way of conceptualizing design is to think of it as problem-solving. We assess a situation, identify problems, analyse people’s needs, and build a product that allows those needs to be fulfilled.

However, if we think of design exclusively in terms of functional problem-solving, we risk turning it into a merely technical exercise—focusing more on the How than the Why. Chimero suggests that “a train station that doesn’t create a lust for exploration is flawed, just as a cathedral that doesn’t inspire awe is a failure.”

If the designer thinks too reductively, they might come to think of the station’s function as merely a place for people to get on and off trains. But asking “Why” questions reveals that those apparently peripheral features of the world’s iconic train stations may be deeply important, and ultimately functional in their own way. 

A train station doesn’t “need” high ceilings, ornate stonework, or panoramic windows to fulfil its core purpose. But a design that includes these isn’t merely indulging in beautification: it is enriching the experience of travel, turning departures and arrivals into distinctive memories with a sense of place and occasion.

Lofty, echoey, spacious ticket halls, at their best, can create a liminal space—at the limit of one place, and on the cusp of another. A well-designed train station evokes excitement and anticipation; a poorly designed station creates claustrophobia, and even fear about what lies ahead.

3. Let the user add salt to the pot

Photo: Atharva Lele/Unsplash

A lovely bit of insight in The Shape of Design is this story, which Chimero paraphrases from interaction designer Liz Danzico:

Occasionally, her mother would ask her to add a bit of salt to the pot while the meal was on the stove simmering. Salting was a way for her to participate in making dinner; the salt was an agent of change that she could use to contribute to the meal, and the salt-box was the structure that allowed her to contribute. (Shape of Design, p. 99)

This is an important lesson, particularly for user experience designers. We often work on the assumption that the optimal user experience will be the one that demands least of the user: i.e. the one with the fewest steps, or the least “friction”. A one-step checkout is more likely to be completed than a two-step checkout. 

While this is a sound principle for reducing unnecessary steps for the user, it doesn’t mean that getting the user to do work is always problematic. Sometimes, like adding salt to the pot, asking the user to contribute can create value by allowing them to invest in the experience.

Nir Eyal has also written about this in Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

The more users invest time and effort into a product or service, the more they value it. In fact, there is ample evidence to suggest that our labor leads to love.

Drawing on a 2011 study by Dan Ariely et al, Eyal calls this the “IKEA effect”: in spite of the furniture being low in price, people tend to value their IKEA furniture highly, precisely because they have invested their own labor in creating it. 

Of course, the value that people invest by adding their own labor to a product can also present the designer with an ethical choice. We can invite the user to add a little salt to the pot to enrich their experience, or we can trick them into completing tasks just to get them hooked.

Elsewhere in his book, Chimero notes this risk:

Design and persuasion are manipulative, and if we have the skills to seduce others towards green pastures, we can also lead them off a cliff. But the threat of a cliff is the cost of the pasture [...] A willingness to to imagine things differently and suspend our dis-belief for one another are the interfaces we create to shape the world. (Shape of Design, p. 70)

4. All design is experience design

As we’ve suggested a couple of times on this blog, we should perhaps be careful about pigeon-holing our practice as designers.

On the job market, the term “user experience designer” is important as a calling-card for professionals who specialize in user research and the design of user-centered apps and websites. But if we’re honest with ourselves, all design requires us to be mindful of the user and how they will experience the work in question. As Chimero sees it,

All design is experience design—whether it is visiting a website, reading a book, referencing a brochure, interacting with a brand, or interpreting a map. All of these interactions and objects of attention produce experiences of use, and those experiences can be made better and more memorable by skillfully catering to the audience in an accommodating way. (Shape of Design, p. 108)

An engineer working on Henry Ford’s Model A back in 1903 probably never imagined that an engine part would see the light of day, let alone have its own “user experience”.

But the engineer’s decisions formed an experience for the driver, in terms of the car’s reliability and the engine’s efficiency; for the mechanic, in terms of its ease of removal and replacement; and, eventually, for us here today, experiencing it not only as a historic moment in the world’s socio-economic story, but also as a parable of the power of creative work.

Read Frank Chimero’s book The Shape of Design online, for free

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