As you know by now, I look at a lot of books. I love many of them. I buy a lot of books that turn out to be not so great, but you won’t hear about them on this website. At least so far, I have restrained from attaching a rating system to my books – that would make my life much more complex than it already is. But here is a five star book, if ever there was one. I have few books which I found this exciting, useful, provocative, and fun.
Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler (Rockport Publishers, 2003) presents itself as a catalog of design ideas. But since these “design” ideas cover everything from the design of your face to the floor plan of a museum, from a PowerPoint slide to a decision-making system, this book is really about life itself and society in general.
I think many of us are designers, even if we don’t think we are. We design our workspaces, homes, presentations, products, and services. On a daily basis, many of us design organizations, pay structures, forms, documents, even stories and jokes. Scientists design experiments and teachers design courses. Trainers design exercises, parents and restaurateurs design meals.
In Universal Principles of Design, each of 100 fundamental concepts is clearly and concisely described on two pages, one that is mainly text and one that is primarily illustrations. Most contain references for further reading. None of the ideas are hard to understand, although some of them made me stop, put the book down, and go into a day or two of pondering the implications.
Like the idea of “affordance,” in which something is designed in a way that encourages, or “affords,” the correct and easiest use of it. Round wheels “afford” rolling better than square wheels; stairs “afford” climbing better than fences. This may sound simple, but you will better understand the world and things around you after you read the two pages and see the examples, including a door which has “negative affordance” – it looks like you should pull on it when in fact you push it.
Or “the exposure effect” – the more you see something about which you were at first neutral, the more you will like it. The authors’ example: posters of Lenin in Soviet propaganda. Learn about the law of Pragnanz, mental models, chunking, serial position effects, signal-to-noise ratio, uniform connectedness, and the Savanna preference. If you haven’t heard of some of these concepts, neither had I. Even the ones I had heard of, I discovered in isolated books, never in an apparently-comprehensive, unified “catalog” like this. This book is perhaps the ultimate “toolchest” for thinkers of all types and interests.
I urge you to get the Universal Principles of Design, and take your time thinking about each idea. This is not the kind of book that gets my usual scan; this is a book to savor over weeks or even months.