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)