john dilworth archives

Book Review: How Designer’s Think: The Design Process Demystified by Brian Lawson (4th Edition).

A month ago, in preparation for an in-house design workshop, we handed out 30 copies of Brian Lawson’s Book “How Designers Think:The Design Process Demystified” to our designers. I first came across the first edition of this book nearly 10 years ago when I started a job at a small design firm in Salt Lake City. I had just moved from a large fairly structured company into a small, very organic company with very little structure at all. I found a first edition book on the company bookshelf and started reading.

I’ll have to admit that the first read was very difficult. The book is quite academic – the author approaches the subject from the perspective an architect who also happens to have doctorate in psychology. Most of the examples in the book discuss architecture and it can take some extra mental work to draw parallels to the profession of graphic and interaction design. In many ways, I found Lawson’s book to be very refreshing.

Lawson’s unique background allow him to approach design from a unique “scientific” perspective, while his design background from architecture, a design discipline provides a balanced perspective. It doesn’t go to far into esoteric design theory that is often discussed by practicing designers, and it doesn’t try to be to prescriptive, a fault which often appears when scientists and engineers write about design. He is able to talk in the language of design, where other authors like Don Norman and Jacob Nielson seem to speak about design in the language of science. There’s actually a great chapter in the book where Lawson illustrates the difference between the scientific approach, and the “designerly” approach. It’s especially comforting to hear it from someone who has practiced both disciplines.

I think that this unique perspective makes the book especially interesting and useful to any practicing designer. Lawson covers the essence of design, the definition of problems, and artfully describes different approaches to the design process. His model of the design process is the best I’ve ever found (chapter 3). He describes design as a “negotiation between problem and solution through the activities of analysis, synthesis and evaluation.” Other essentials deal with strategies for measuring the success and value of design (Chapter 5), and chapter 7 provides an excellent overview of the nature of design solutions, problems, and processes (chapter 7).

My favorite chapter, and the one that has influenced my work perhaps the most, is chapter 13: Design Traps. Lawson outlines several common traps that designers find themselves in. You can’t read this chapter and not have an “aha” moment, or cringe at the things which might be affecting your design right now.

I consider this book a “must read” and believe that it is one of the best books on the subject. The viewpoint is unique, and it provides beneficial knowledge that will help you in all aspects of the design profession.

We’re looking forward to the discussion next Friday.

posted by john on Thursday, Jul 10, 2008

“Once your user base has grown beyond a certain point, you cannot take features away from them. They will freak out. Whether the feature is good or bad, once you launch it you’ve married it.”
Ryan at 37Signals

posted by john on Sunday, Jul 06, 2008

“For the most part, the creation or effects of design, unlike science, are neither measurable nor predictable, nor are the results necessarily repeatable. If there is any assurance, besides faith, a businessman can have, it is in choosing talented, competent, and experienced designers.”
Paul Rand, A Designer’s Art

posted by john on Wednesday, Jun 25, 2008

Rob Thomas (our design manager) and Pete Lasko are both competing today in the Ironman. The Ironman triathalon includes a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and then just for fun, they run a full 26.2 mile marathon after that. We wish them the best of luck.

posted by john on Sunday, Jun 22, 2008

What is going on here? I thought that the UI in FireFox 3 was broken, but I guess this is what they wanted it to look like. However bad it looks, it is a great example of misplaced dissonance.

posted by john on Thursday, Jun 19, 2008

The Most Important Skill

About a week ago, the following question was asked by one of our designers: “What is the one skill that can make the most positive impacts in your profession?” If you leave out the obvious answers, such as invisibility or flight, the question is not so easy to answer. A great designer must master several skills in order to be truly effective. After realizing that I didn’t have a good answer, I decided to explore the question a bit further.

What are Skills?

Skills are really only one part of the picture. There are also things that you must know, and there are things that you must be. Skills are actionable, they are the things that you can do. Knowing lots of stuff is not a skill, and simply being a “nice person” is not a skill (there are things that you do in order to know lots of stuff, and things you can do to be a nicer person). Things that you know and your personal attributes are important factors. You can’t have skill in anything if you don’t know how to do it, or if you do not have the attributes required to execute a particular skill.

What Does a Designer Need to Do?

Great designers must perform many different tasks throughout the course a design project. Great designers need to be generalists. They need to have the right attributes, broad knowledge, and good skills in all the areas that they might be required to work. In general, the work that designers are expected to do falls into one of the following three categories.

  1. Understanding
  2. Identifying
  3. Crafting

For each of these sections, I’ve identified what needs to be done, and which skills a designer must execute in order to be effective.


The designer must understand or discovering the problems and/or opportunities that they are asked to address.

This can be done by:

  1. Listening to those who will be affected, and to those who best understand.
  2. Empathizing with those whose needs you are trying to meet.
  3. Analyzing the data and facts associated with the issue.
  4. If there are no facts, no data, and nobody to listen to, the designer must creatively find ways to build facts and identify the stakeholders.


The designer must be able to identify and must also be able to demonstrate realistic ways to address the problem or engage the opportunity.

This can be done by:


This can be done by:

  1. Executing the chosen solution in the proper and most perfect way possible according to the available budget and time constraints.
  2. Coordinating and directing the work of others who might be assisting you in the final production.
  3. Evaluating the production work according to the highest standards of your craft.
  4. Presenting the final production ready work with simplicity and clarity.
  5. Educate others about decisions leading to the final design.

What are the Skills?

The above outline is by no means a comprehensive list. Perhaps it is even too simple, but it does provide a basic outline of some of the general things that a designer must do. From this outline, we can extract the following list of skills (the things a designer must do) in order to understand, identify, and craft excellent solutions.

The designer must:

In the case of web site or interaction design, there are few specific skills which come in very handy:

Which skill is most important?

Of all the skills above, I don’t know that you could identify one as being more important than another. The most important skill might be whichever skill you are currently the weakest at, or it might be the skill where you have the most potential or opportunity to excel.

There is one other skill which has not been listed, which is perhaps more important than any other. This sometimes forgotten skill is required before any of the above can ever be obtained. The one skill that I would identify as the most important, and the one that can make the most positive impact on your profession, is that of mastering your capacity and ability to learn.

If you have comments about this article, please send them to john.dilworth [at] or discuss them here

posted by john on Wednesday, Apr 30, 2008 · 0 comments

“1. Don’t think you’re a web designer unless you actually are.”
Carl Alvani writes up a nice list of things designers should never do when building their portfolio websites.

posted by john on Thursday, Apr 10, 2008

posted by john on Wednesday, Mar 19, 2008

posted by john on Monday, Mar 10, 2008

The St. John’s Bible is a contemporary hand-made illuminated manuscript—the first of its kind in over 500 years. A full-size reproduction copy (The Heritage Edition) can be purchased for $115,000.

posted by john on Monday, Feb 18, 2008

Tadd pens up his “raison d’être” for one of our most important cultural values: Lunch is Important.

posted by john on Monday, Feb 11, 2008

“Design is to design a design to produce a design.”
My brother Jason’s definition of design.

posted by john on Friday, Jan 18, 2008

Watch out for the Design Police.
Get the templates and start your own auxiliary design enforcement faction.
(Maybe we can use these in templates in our upcoming design review?)

posted by john on Thursday, Jan 17, 2008

posted by john on Tuesday, Jan 15, 2008

“What did you do back when interest rates were at their lowest in 50 years, crime was close to zero, great employees were looking for good jobs, computers made product development and marketing easier than ever, and there was almost no competition for good news about great ideas?”
Seth Godin asks the question: Why not be great?

posted by john on Thursday, Dec 27, 2007

“It is doubtful that anyone who doesn’t want to be an apprentice will ever become a master.”
Jan Tschichold in The Form of the Book: The Importance of Tradition in Typography.

posted by john on Tuesday, Dec 11, 2007

Check out the “modern gingerbread house” along with other great gifts for designers in Core 77s Ultimate Gift Guide.

posted by john on Wednesday, Dec 05, 2007

“Grace in typography, comes of itself when the compositor brings a certain love to his work. Whoever does not love his work cannot hope that it will please others.”
Jan Tschichold (1902-1974)

posted by john on Monday, Nov 26, 2007

For all the cyclist on the team: Vintage Racing Posters

posted by john on Monday, Nov 19, 2007

37 Signals gets real about using personas, or should I say “not using personas” in the design process.

posted by john on Tuesday, Nov 06, 2007