The Design of Design: A Book Review

Cover image of The Design of Design by Frederick Brooks, Jr.

Everyone who thinks about what it takes to create great products needs to read The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist.  Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., author of The Mythical Man-Month, has released this inspiring collection of essays about the nature of design.  By Brooks’ definition, design includes the notion of intent and definition of goals, requirements, and implementation choices.  Everyone responsible for creating products, but with fewer than Brooks’ five decades of experience really needs to read The Design of Design.

Disclosures

My first disclosure is that I received a complimentary review copy of The Design of Design.  If you feel that that biases my review, stop reading now, and come back for the next article.

My second disclosure is that I receive a lot of complimentary book offers (and books), and while I read and review them, I only publicly review the books here when I believe you will benefit from reading the book.  In almost five years of blogging, this is only the eighth book review published here.  When I don’t care for a book, I don’t publish a negative review – I simply opt out.

First Impression

In the forward of The Design of Design, Brooks references J.R.R. Tolkein – “J.R.R. Tolkein suggests that God gave us the gift of sub-creation, as a gift, just for our joy.”  This from a man with massive experience in the science, engineering, and architecture domains.  With his acknowledgement of the essence of sub-creation, Brooks got my attention, and he never lost it.

What Brooks truly has a gift for is distilling insight from the vapor of real-world projects.  He is incredibly effective at presenting his (and others’) ideas, constructs, and perspectives.  He succeeds with analogies, logical analysis, anecdotal examples, and an incomprehensible number of references to market data and analyses thereof.

Brooks is probably a polymath, and certainly a Renaissance man.  He puts the “agile versus waterfall” (as a design process) debate in perspective by framing it as a variant of the contrast in point of view between empiricist John Locke and rationalist Rene’ Descartes.  He draws on contemporary, recent, and ancient references and perspectives to reveal insights and support his positions.

The Design of Design

The book itself is a collection of essays – each is a chapter in the book – that flows logically, ideas building upon previous discussions.  He almost creates a story arc as he progresses through his topics – starting by helping you get in the right frame of mind as you leap down the rabbit hole of deep thinking about the creation of products while holding his hand.

Brooks has both affirmed my experiences in product creation and challenged my conclusions and biases.  I read an essay and a I feel a mixture of empowerment, encouragement and humility.

Another thing Brooks does really well is focus on the important ideas (great design comes from great designers, not great design processes), while avoiding entanglement in the pedantic (should we label desiderata as requirements or designs).

I fully expect several future articles here (and many of my future work products) to be heavily influenced by Brooks.  His most significant ideas are meaty, and discussing any one of them would distract from a review of the collection.  For now, I’ll just list some of the areas of thought and ideas that he explores directly or indirectly:

  • Models for the product creation process – choosing the right problems to solve, inventing, and implementing a solution.
  • Finding the “right” design process – or if there even can be a “right” process.
  • Agile versus waterfall – empiricism versus rationalism.
  • Elegance of design and the importance of understanding your users.
  • Collaboration in design, distributed teams, and the impacts of corporate culture and policy on design.
  • Constraints on design – how they can empower and how they can neuter designers.
  • Studying exemplars of design – learning from the past, with an emphasis on understanding why design choices were made.

He also provides what seems to be hundreds of fantastic references – I’ll never work through the queue on my nightstand now!

Dave West has also reviewed professor Brooks’ book, and included a set of follow-up questions and answers with professor Brooks in his article on InfoQ

Conclusion

In the first 200 pages – 100 “two page spreads” – I have 35 post-it notes in the book  to flag important ideas.  It is the rare book that gets a dozen such markers.  The professional books that I enjoy are the ones that present ideas that encourage me to pursue new avenues of thought.  The Design of Design inspires me to not only do that, but re-think my definition of “avenue.”  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Thank you, professor Brooks, for writing it!

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