Tag: Design

Knowledge Makes Everything Simpler

Operating a screw is pretty simple as John Maeda points out in The Laws of Simplicity:

Just mate the grooves atop the screw's head to the appropriate tip-slotted or Phillips-of a screwdriver. What happens next is not as simple, as you may have noted while observing a child or a woefully sheltered adult turning the screwdriver in the wrong direction.

My children remember this rule through a mnemonic taught by my spouse, “righty tighty, lefty loosy.” Personally I use the analogy of a clock, and map the clockwise motion of the hands to the positive penetration curve of the screw. Both methods are subject to a second layer of knowledge: knowing right versus left, or knowing what direction the hands of a clock turn. Thus operating a screw is not as simple as it appears. And it's such an apparently simple object!

So while the screw is a simple design, you need to know which way to turn it. Knowledge makes everything simpler. This is true for any object, no matter how difficult. The problem with taking time to learn a task is that you often feel you are wasting time, a violation of the third Law. We are well aware of the dive-in-head-first approach-“I don't need the instructions, let me just do it.” But in fact this method often takes longer than following the directions in the manual.

Maeda goes on to present a few of his design-informed approaches to “good learning.”

Use Your Brain

The doctrine of “the carrot or the stick” points to a choice between positive and negative motivation-a reward versus a punishment. I disagree when teachers give their students candy and other perks for correct answers, but I also disagree with a colleague at MIT who throws erasers at students that fall asleep during class.

Instead, my ten years of data as a professor show that giving students a seemingly insurmountable challenge is the best motivator to learn. It is said that a massive amount of homework is a kind of reward for the average over-achieving MIT student. But after recently experiencing student life myself, I've lost my masochistic attitude in favor of a holistic approach:

BASICS are the beginning.
REPEAT yourself often.
AVOID creating desperation.
INSPIRE with examples.
NEVER forget to repeat yourself.

The first step in conveying the BASICS is to assume the position of the first-time learner. As the expert, playing this role is not impossible, but it is best ceded to a focus group or any other gathering of external participants. Observing what fails to make sense to the non-expert, and then following that trail successively to the very end of the knowledge chain is the critical path to success. Gathering these truths is worthwhile but can be time consuming or else done poorly. … the easiest way to learn the basics is to teach the basics yourself.

Maeda relates a lecture he attended to illustrate the point of simplicity.

A few years ago, I visited the master of Swiss typographic design, Wolfgang Weingart, in Maine to give a lecture for his then regular summer course. I marveled at Weingart's ability to give the exact same introductory lecture each year. I thought to myself, “Doesn't he get bored?” Saying the same thing over and over had no value in my mind, and I honestly began to think less of the Master. Yet it was upon maybe the third visit that I realized how although Weingart was saying the exact same thing, he was saying it simpler each time he said it. Through focusing on the basics of basics, he was able to reduce everything that he knew to the concentrated essence of what he wished to convey. His unique example rekindled my excitement for teaching.

We think that REPEATing ourselves is simple or even embarrassing. One of the biggest things I've had to overcome with public speaking was my fear of repeating myself. I used to catch myself saying the same thing and I'd just assume that everyone heard it the first time.

AVOID-ing desperation is something to target when learning is concerned.

We all want to “wow” people from the beginning with the newest bells and whistles in an amazing new product, but sometimes “wow” can become “woah” and you need an aspirin to cope with the anxiety of the overwhelming aspects of the new. I dread upgrading software on my computer because I know how eager the new program will be to tell me its latest and most wondrous features. The strategy of “shock and awe” can discourage the shocked-and-awed as I learned by experiencing the vast chasm of knowledge between teacher and learner as an MBA student. I also became aware of how professors can unknowingly become insensitive in a university setting. A gentle, inspired start is the best way to draw students, or even a new customer, into the immersive process of learning.

“INSPIRATION,” Maeda writes, “is the ultimate catalyst for learning: internal motivation trumps external reward.” The belief in something greater than ourselves (be it a person or mission) fuels our self-belief and adds direction.

And finally. NEVER forget to repeat yourself.


We've spoken before about the power of metaphors and how they shape our thoughts. While metaphors are great, if you surprise with a metaphor you create a positive emergent effect. Or, put another way, if you can surprise along an unexpected positive dimension, you create the possibility for a non-linear response.

Metaphors are useful platforms for transferring a large body of existing knowledge from one context to another with minimal, often imperceptible, effort on the part of the person crossing the conceptual bridge. But metaphors are only deeply engaging if they SURPRISE along some unexpected, positive dimension.

The Real Reward

The real reward is learning. We learned to walk largely though trial and error. Not because daddy offered us $5. The reward was our own growth, something we've forgotten as we get older. We could just as easily learn today but we want immediate and usually financial reward.

Difficult tasks seem easier when they are “need to know” rather than “nice to know.” A course in history, mathematics, or chemistry is nice to know for a teenager, but completing driver's education satisfies a fundamental need for autonomy. In the beginning of life we strive for independence, and at the end of life it is the same. At the core of the best rewards is this fundamental desire for freedom in thinking, living, and being. I've learned that the most successful product designs, whether simple, complex, rational, illogical, domestic, international, technophilic, or technophobic, are the ones that connect deeply to the greater context of learning and life.

The Laws of Simplicity is a great book that you should read.

The Relationship Between Design and Planning


While I'm not all that interested in military doctrine and tactics in and of themselves, I am interested in complex systems, how the weak win wars, and the lessons military leaders offer (for example, see the lessons of William McRaven and Stanley McChrystal).

This is how I found myself flipping through The U.S. Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which was written to facilitate a common understanding of the problems inherent in counterinsurgency campaigns.

There was a fascinating section on the difference between designing and planning that caused me to pause and reflect.

While both activities seek to formulate ways to bring about preferable futures, they are cognitively different. Planning applies established procedures to solve a largely understood problem within an accepted framework. Design inquires into the nature of a problem to conceive a framework for solving that problem. In general, planning is problem solving, while design is problem setting. Where planning focuses on generating a plan—a series of executable actions—design focuses on learning about the nature of an unfamiliar problem.

When situations do not conform to established frames of reference — when the hardest part of the problem is figuring out what the problem is—planning alone is inadequate and design becomes essential. In these situations, absent a design process to engage the problem's essential nature, planners default to doctrinal norms; they develop plans based on the familiar rather than an understanding of the real situation. Design provides a means to conceptualize and hypothesize about the underlying causes and dynamics that explain an unfamiliar problem. Design provides a means to gain understanding of a complex problem and insights towards achieving a workable solution.

To better understand the multifaceted problems many of us face today it helps to talk with people who have different perspectives. This helps achieve better situational understanding. At best this can point the way to solutions and at worst this should help with learning what to avoid.

Often we skip the information gathering phase because it's a lot of work. A lot of conversations. However this process helps us become informed, rather than just opinionated.

The underlying premise is this: when participants achieve a level of understanding such that the situation no longer appears complex, they can exercise logic and intuition effectively. As a result, design focuses on framing the problem rather than developing courses of action.

Just as you can never step in the same river twice, design is not something you do once and walk away. It's an ongoing inquiry into the nature of problems and the various factors and relationships to help improve understanding. Constantly assessing the situation from a design perspective, helps gauge the effectiveness of the planning and subsequent actions. If you don't periodically reassess the situation, you might be solving a problem that no longer exists.

The U.S. Army / Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual is full of other thought-provoking content.

(image source)

Building a Business and Making Your Mark

99u Don't hate Create

While ‘managing by bestseller' is a misguided approach to fixing organizational problems, there is a lot to be learned from the leading experts and entrepreneurs on what’s different about building a business today.

Make Your Mark: The Creative's Guide to Building a Business with Impact, edited by Jocelyn Glei, features insights from twenty-one leading experts and entrepreneurs to explore the principles that propel some of today's most successful companies.

It's about “applying the forces of business to creativity.”

In the foreword to the book, Scott Belsky, the Founder of Behance and author of Making Ideas Happen, points to one of the fundamental problems with creativity: it's often undiscoverable. And if it's undiscoverable it has no impact.

Creativity has many definitions.

For me, creativity is solving problems in new ways and conceiving new ways of looking at the world.

Creativity can be expressed in many forms, like art, science, and thought.

But creativity is all too often undiscoverable and incomprehensible.

Art, without distribution and discovery, moves nobody. Did it ever exist? Science, without clear explanation and advocacy, won't be understood by the masses. Will it make an impact?

Creation, he argues, “must be made accessible for consumption.” Creativity alone, is not enough. We need to make it consumable by channeling and packaging it.

99u Make your Mark

The best businesses are purpose driven. But you can't go far without an incredible product experience. What guides all great product development are the twin ideals of “an unstoppable enthusiasm for bringing something great into the world and a relentless focus on usability.” Making good products takes time.

Excellense is doing

Enter Sebastian Thrun, the leader behind the team that created Google Glass and the Google Self-Driving Car. He's also the co-founder of Udacity, which is trying to disrupt education by improving the learning experience. Thrun does a Q&A in the book and it's one of the best things I've read recently.

How do you focus your energies at the beginning of a project?

When thinking about products, I like to use a mountain-climbing analogy. The first step is to pick a peak. Don’t pick a peak because it’s easy. Pick a peak because you really want to go there; that way you’ll enjoy the process.

The second thing is to pick a team you trust and that’s willing to learn with you. Because the way mountain climbing really works is that you can’t climb the entire route perfectly. You have to know that you are going to make mistakes, that you’ll have to turn around, and that you’ll have to recover.

You also have to maintain your sense of purpose. For a long time, it may feel like you’re on the wrong path, but you must have the resilience to forge ahead. You just have to keep moving uphill.

It's about the process not the outcome.

For me, the journey is much more delightful if you can derive pleasure from the process every day, rather than at the end of the year. If your goal is to IPO and get rich, then you’re going to be in for a very long, very sad ride. Because most people don’t IPO and don’t get rich.

Our most important asset is our time, so I think it’s best to manage your time well right now and be happy about it, rather than focus on some deferred goal, like buying a fancy car in the future. The data shows that people who are rich aren’t any happier, so you might as well derive your happiness from what you are doing today.

How does iteration figure into your process? Do you think it’s best to create a functional prototype as soon as possible?

To return to the mountain idea, if you think about it, there’s no other way to get up the mountain than taking a hundred thousand steps. You could have all the meetings and all the documentation and work for weeks on end to make the perfect plan. But in my opinion, all you’ve done at that point is lost time. You’ve done nothing. You’ve learned nothing.

Sure, if this mountain has been climbed ten thousand times before, then you just get the book, and the maps, and you follow the same steps. But that’s not innovation. Innovation is about climbing a mountain that no one has climbed before. So there ought to be some unknowns along the way because no one has solved the problem yet.

And when you’re innovating, sheer thinking just won’t work. What gets you there is fast iteration, and fast failing. And when you fail, you’ve done something great: you’ve learned something. In hindsight, it might look a little embarrassing, and people will say, “You should’ve known that.” But the truth is you couldn’t have known because it’s unchartered territory. Almost every entrepreneur I know has failed massively many, many times along the way.

What’s the most common mistake that people make when they’re developing a product?

One mistake I see a lot is the eternal thinker, the perfectionist. This is the person that builds all the components without putting them together, because there’s perfection in component development. And they have this idea that if you only put things together right before launch, everything will go fine. Of course, that never happens.

The second mistake I see is more of a character issue, which is being discouraged by failure. Where you do something three or four times, spend half a year in development, and think, “Oh my god, I’m not there yet, let me change my career . . .” So that’s a lack of perseverance.

The last one I see is being driven by fear. When your competitor does something new, you become fearful and decide that you’re going to change course. But every single time you do this, you’re already behind your competitor and that’s just a bad idea. You have to have faith in yourself, and believe in your vision.

At some time, everybody is driven by fear. But we need to—as much as we can—take fear out of the game. One way to do this is to imagine that you are already successful. You’ve looked into the future, and you’ve succeeded. What would you enjoy doing today given that knowledge?

make your mark

Clearly, certain personality types are more comfortable with iteration and failure than others. Do you think you can learn to be if it doesn’t come naturally?

It’s obvious to me that there’s a certain personality type that can deal with failure more than others. But I think this awareness can also be acquired, especially when you realize that the failures that come out of experimentation really don’t relate to you as a person. It’s just the course of innovation; failure is a systemic part of that process.

For instance, if you’re driving a car, and after three hundred miles the car runs out of gas, no one takes offense because the “failure” is inherent to the car, not to you. It’s not your failure to operate the car correctly. We all know that you have to refill the gas tank; that’s just the way it is. So if we think of failure in innovation in the same way—as having to refill the gas tank regularly—we can take it much less personally.

That’s a great metaphor. So you think the idea of constant—and playful—experimentation is the best mind-set for innovation?

It’s very uncommon for people to have the attitude of “Wow, I don’t know.” In childhood, researchers call this a “growth mind-set”—this idea that you’re comfortable with the fact that you just don’t know something yet, or that you just can’t do something yet. But most people are raised with this feeling that they know everything.

But if you know everything, you can’t possibly innovate, right? It’s impossible, because there is nothing new to learn or discover.

There’s this funny saying that I like: “After high school, kids know everything, after their bachelor’s degree, they know something, and after a PhD, they now know that they know nothing.”

I think that the ability to see how much more there is to know and be humble about it is actually a good thing. Returning to the mountain metaphor, every mountain climber I know of feels small in the mountains and enjoys the feeling of being small. No matter what you do, the mountain is always bigger than you are.

Make Your Mark is the third book in 99u's “missing curriculum” for creative leaders. The two prior ones are Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind and Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career.

The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge

“There certainly have been many new things
in the world of visualization; but unless
you know its history, everything might seem novel.”

— Michael Friendly


It’s tempting to consider information visualization a relatively new field that rose in response to the demands of the Internet generation. “But,” argues Manual Lima in The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge, “as with any domain of knowledge, visualizing is built on a prolonged succession of efforts and events.”

This book is absolutely gorgeous. I stared at it for hours.

While it’s tempting to look at the recent work, it’s critical we understand the long history. Lima’s stunning book helps, covering the fascinating 800-year history of the seemingly simple tree diagram.

Trees are some of the oldest living things in the world. The sequoias in Northern California, for example, can reach a height of nearly 400 feet, with a trunk diameter of 26 feet and live to more than 3,500 years. “These grandiose, mesmerizing lifeforms are a remarkable example of longevity and stability and, ultimately, are the crowning embodiment of the powerful qualities humans have always associated with trees.”

Such an important part of natural life on earth, tree metaphors have become deeply embedded in the English language, as in the “root” of the problem or “branches” of knowledge. In the Renaissance, the philosophers Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, for example, used tree diagrams to describe dense classification arrangements. As we shall see, trees really became popular as a method of communicating and changing minds with Charles Darwin.

The Kept

In the introduction Lima writes:

In a time when more than half of the world’s population live in cities, surrounded on a daily basis by asphalt, cement, iron, and glass, it’s hard to conceive of a time when trees were of immense and tangible significance to our existence. But for thousands and thousands of years, trees have provided us with not only shelter, protection, and food, but also seemingly limitless resources for medicine, fire, energy, weaponry, tool building, and construction. It’s only normal that human beings, observing their intricate branching schemas and the seasonal withering and revival of their foliage, would see trees as powerful images of growth, decay, and resurrection. In fact, trees have had such an immense significance to humans that there’s hardly any culture that hasn’t invested them with lofty symbolism and, in many cases, with celestial and religious power. The veneration of trees, known as dendrolatry, is tied to ideas of fertility, immortality, and rebirth and often is expressed by the axis mundi (world axis), world tree, or arbor vitae (tree of life). These motifs, common in mythology and folklore from around the globe, have held cultural and religious significance for social groups throughout history — and indeed still do.


The omnipresence of these symbols reveals an inherently human connection and fascination with trees that traverse time and space and go well beyond religious devotion. This fascination has seized philosophers, scientists, and artists, who were drawn equally by the tree’s inscrutabilities and its raw, forthright, and resilient beauty. Trees have a remarkably evocative and expressive quality that makes them conducive to all types of depiction. They are easily drawn by children and beginning painters, but they also have been the main subjects of renowned artists throughout the ages.


Our relationship with trees is symbiotic and this helps explain why it permeates our language and thought.

As our knowledge of trees has grown through this and many other scientific breakthroughs, we have realized that they have a much greater responsibility than merely providing direct subsistence for the sheltered ecosystems they support. Trees perform a critical role in moderating ground temperature and preventing soil erosion. Most important, they are known as the lungs of our planet, taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen. As a consequence, trees and humans are inexorably intertwined on our shared blue planet.

Our primordial, symbiotic relationship with the tree can elucidate why its branched schema has provided not only an important iconographic motif for art and religion, but also an important metaphor for knowledge-classification systems. Throughout human history the tree structure has been used to explain almost every facet of life: from consanguinity ties to cardinal virtues, systems of laws to domains of science, biological associations to database systems. It has been such a successful model for graphically displaying relationships because it pragmatically expresses the materialization of multiplicity (represented by its succession of boughs, branches, twigs, and leaves) out of unity (its central foundational trunk, which is in turn connected to a common root, source, or origin.)

While we can't go back in time it certainly appears like Charles Darwin changed the trajectory of the tree diagram forever when he used it to change minds about one of our most fundamental beliefs.

Darwin’s contribution to biology—and humanity—is of incalculable value. His ideas on evolution and natural selection still bear great significance in genetics, molecular biology, and many other disparate fields. However, his legacy of information mapping has not been highlighted frequently. During the twenty years that led to the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Darwin considered various notions of how the tree could represent evolutionary relationships among specifics that share a common ancestor. He produced a series of drawings expanding on arboreal themes; the most famous was a rough sketch drawn in the midst of a few jotted notes in 1837. Years later, his idea would eventually materialize in the crucial diagram that he called the “tree of life” (below) and featured in the Origin of Species.

Darwin was cognizant of the significance of the tree figure as a central element in representing his theory. He took eight pages of the chapter “Natural Selection,” where the diagram is featured, to expand in considerable detail on the workings of the tree and its value in understanding the concept of common descent.


A few months before the publication of his book, Darwin wrote his publisher, John Murray: “Enclosed is the Diagram which I wish engraved on Copper on folding out Plate to face latter part of volume. — It is an odd looking affair, but is indispensable to show the nature of the very complex affinities of past & present animals. …”

The illustration was clearly a “crucial manifestation of his thinking,” and of central importance to Darwin’s argument.

As it turned out it was the tree diagram, accompanied by Darwin’s detailed explanations, that truly persuaded a rather reluctant and skeptical audience to accept his groundbreaking ideas.

Coming back to the metaphor, before we go on to explain and show some of the different types of tree diagrams, Lima argues that given the long-lasting nature of the tree and its penetration into our lives as a way to organize, describe, and understand we can use the tree as a prism to better understand our world.

As one of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting visual metaphors, the tree is an extraordinary prism through which we can observe the evolution of human consciousness, ideology, culture, and society. From its entrenched roots in religious exegesis to its contemporary secular digital expressions, the multiplicity of mapped subjects cover almost every significant aspect of life throughout the centuries. But this dominant symbol is not just a remarkable example of human ingenuity in mapping information; it is also the result of a strong human desire for order, balance, hierarchy, structure, and unity. When we look at an early twenty-first-century sunburst diagram, it appears to be a species entirely distinct from a fifteenth-century figurative tree illustration. However, if we trace its lineage back through numerous tweaks, shifts, experiments, failures, and successes, we will soon realize there’s a defined line of descent constantly punctuated by examples of human skill and inventiveness.

Types of Tree Diagrams

Figurative Trees
Figurative Trees

Trees have been not only important religious symbols for numerous cultures through the ages, but also significant metaphors for describing and organizing human knowledge. As one of the most ubiquitous visual classification systems, the tree diagram has through time embraced the most realistic and organic traits of its real, biological counterpart, using trunks, branches, and offshoots to represent connections among different entities, normally represented by leaves, fruits, or small shrubberies.

Even though tree diagrams have lost some of their lifelike features over the years, becoming ever more stylized and nonfigurative, many of their associated labels, such as roots, branches, and leaves, are still widely used. From family ties to systems of law, biological species to online discussions, their range of subjects is as expansive as their time span.


Tree-Eagle Joachim of Fiore

tree of consanguinity-compressed

the common law-compressed

Vertical Trees

vertical trees

The transition from realistic trees to more stylized, abstract constructs was a natural progression in the development of hierarchical representations, and a vertical scheme splitting from top or bottom was an obvious structural choice. … Of all visualization models, vertical trees are the ones that retain the strongest resemblance to figurative trees, due to their vertical layout and forking arrangement from a central trunk. In most cases they are inverted trees, with the root at the top, emphasizing the notion of descent and representing a more natural writing pattern from top to bottom. Although today they are largely constrained to small digital screens and displays, vertical trees in the past were often designed in larger formats such as long parchment scrolls and folding charts that could provide a great level of detail.

La Chronique Universelle-compressed

Horizontal Trees
horizonatal tree

With the adoption of a more schematic and abstract construct, deprived of realistic arboreal features, a tree diagram could sometimes be rotated along its axis and depicted horizontally, with its ranks arranged most frequently from left to right.

Horizontal trees probably emerged as an alternative to vertical trees to address spatial constraints and layout requirements, but they also provide unique advantages. The nesting arrangement of horizontal trees resembles the grammatical construct of a sentence, echoing a natural reading pattern that anyone can relate to. This alternative scheme was often deployed on facing pages of a manuscript, with the root of the tree at the very center, creating a type of mirroring effect that is still found in many digital and interactive executions. Horizontal trees have proved highly efficient for archetypal models such as classification trees, flow charts, mind maps, dendrograms, and, notably, in the display of files on several software applications and operating systems.


Web trigrams-compressed

The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge goes on to explore multi-directional, radial, hyperbolic, rectangular, Voronoi, and circular tree maps as well as sunbursts and icicle trees.

Paula Scher on Process versus Outcome

Paula Scher
Iconic typography designer Paula Scher discusses her creative process, including the famous Citi logo. Interestingly, the idea came to her in seconds and that presented a problem for the client. They wanted to buy a process not an outcome. Scher's process is very much one of combinatory creativity, whereby she combines existing things in new ways.

A lot of clients like to buy process. It's like they think they are not getting their money's worth because I solved it too fast.


How can it be that you talk to someone and it’s done in a second? But it IS done in a second — it’s done in a second and 34 years. It’s done in a second and every experience, and every movie, and everything in my life that’s in my head.

This reminds me of an old story with many variations. Here is one version.

A giant ship engine failed. The ship's owners tried one expert after another, but none of them could figure but how to fix the engine.

Then they brought in an old man who had been fixing ships since he was a young [boy]. He carried a large bag of tools with him, and when he arrived, he immediately went to work. He inspected the engine very carefully, top to bottom.

Two of the ship's owners were there, watching this man, hoping he would know what to do. After looking things over, the old man reached into his bag and pulled out a small hammer. He gently tapped something. Instantly, the engine lurched into life. He carefully put his hammer away. The engine was fixed!

A week later, the owners received a bill from the old man for ten thousand dollars.

“What?!” the owners exclaimed. “He hardly did anything!” So they wrote the old man a note saying, “Please send us an itemised bill.”

The man sent a bill that read:
Tapping with a hammer………………….. $ 2.00
Knowing where to tap…………………….. $ 9,998.00

*Effort is important, but knowing where to make an effort makes all the difference!*

This mini interview prompted me to order a copy of Scher's Make It Bigger, which looks at graphic design from the vantage point of business.

(image source)

TED Bookstore 2013

If you missed out on attending the famous TED conference this year — you're not alone. But now you can queue up some of the books that were available at the TED Bookstore for your spring reading pile. The bookstore was curated this year by Maria Popova (Brain Pickings).

I haven't been able to find a full list of all the books available. Yet, here are 10 of Maria's favourites from this years TED Bookstore along with the text that appears on the bookstore cards introducing the book to TED attendees.

I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail


A die-cut masterpiece, two years in the making, I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, one of the best art books of 2012, is based on a 17th-century British “trick” poem and illustrated in the signature Indian folk art style of the Gond tribe by Indian artist Ramsingh Urveti. It comes from Indian independent publisher Tara Books (♥), who for the nearly two decades have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a community of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books.

Tiny Beautiful Things


When an anonymous advice columnist by the name of “Dear Sugar” introduced herself on The Rumpus on March 11, 2010, she made her proposition clear: a “by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.” But in the two-some years that followed, she proceeded to deliver something tenfold punchier, more honest, more existentially profound than even such an intelligently irreverent promise could foretell. Collected in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, is her no-bullshit, wholehearted wisdom on life’s trickiest contexts — sometimes the simplest, sometimes the most complex, always the most deeply human — published under Sugar’s long-awaited real name.

Big Questions From Little People


The questions children ask are often so simple, so basic, that they turn unwittingly yet profoundly philosophical in requiring apple-pie-from-scratch type of answers. To explore this fertile intersection of simplicity and expansiveness, Gemma Elwin Harris asked thousands of primary school children between the ages of four and twelve to send in their most restless questions, then invited some of today’s most prominent scientists, philosophers, and writers — including TEDsters like Alain de Botton, Mary Roach, and Richard Dawkins — to answer them. The result is Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds, among both the best children’s books of 2012 and the year’s overall reader favorites. A portion of the proceeds from the book benefits Save the Children.

Internal Time

Internal Time

“Six hours’ sleep for a man, seven for a woman, and eight for a fool,” Napoleon famously prescribed. But despite the laughably sexist hierarchy, his rule of thumb turns out to be grossly unsupported by science. In Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired (public library), one of the best science books of 2012, German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg demonstrates through a wealth of research that our sleep patterns have little to do with laziness and other such scorned character flaws, and everything to do with biology.

Where the Heart Beats

where the heart beats

In Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, also one of the best philosophy books of 2012, longtime art critic and practicing Buddhist Kay Larson constructs an exceptional intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of John Cage — one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose impact reaches beyond the realm of music and into art, literature, cinema, and just about every other aesthetic and conceptual expression of curiosity about the world, yet also one of history’s most misunderstood artists. Fifteen years in the making, this superbly researched, exquisitely written tome weaves together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980

Susan Sontag — As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks

The second published volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, one of the best history books of 2012, offers an intimate glimpse of the inner life of a woman celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable intellectuals, yet one who felt as deeply and intensely as she thought. Oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible, Sontag details everything from her formidable media diet of literature and film to her intense love affairs and infatuations to her meditations on society’s values and vices. Especially enchanting is the evolution of her relationship with love over that decade and a half, as Sontag settles into her own skin not only as a dimensional writer but also as a dimensional human being.

The Where, the Why, and the How

The Where, the Why, and the How

In The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science, one of the best science books of 2012, some of today’s most celebrated artists create scientific illustrations and charts to accompany short essays about the most fascinating unanswered questions on the minds of contemporary scientists across biology, astrophysics, chemistry, quantum mechanics, anthropology, and more. The questions cover such mind-bending subjects as whether there are more than three dimensions, why we sleep and dream, what causes depression, how long trees live, and why humans are capable of language. Above all, the project is a testament to the idea that ignorance is what drives discovery and wonder is what propels science — a reminder to, as Rilke put it, live the questions and delight in reflecting on the mysteries themselves.

Henri’s Walk to Paris

Saul Bass is considered by many — myself included — the greatest graphic designer of all time, responsible for some of the most timeless logos and most memorable film title sequences of the twentieth century. In 1962, Bass collaborated with former librarian Leonore Klein on his only children’s book, which spent decades as a prized out-of-print collector’s item. Exactly half a century later, Henri’s Walk to Paris, one of 2012′s best children’s books, was brought back to life.

A Technique for Producing Ideas

a technique for producing ideas

Originally published by an ad man named James Webb Young in 1939, A Technique for Producing Ideas is a forgotten gem that lays out with striking lucidity and clarity the five essential steps for a productive creative process, touching on a number of elements corroborated by modern science and thinking on creativity: its reliance on process over mystical talent, its combinatorial nature, its demand for a pondering period, its dependence on the brain’s unconscious processes, and more.

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs

new yorker book of dogs

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs is a remarkable collection of canine-themed treats — fiction, poetry, feature articles, humor, cartoons, cover art, manuscript drafts — by a slew of titans culled from the magazine’s archive, including E. B. White, Maira Kalman, John Updike, Jonathan Lethem, and Roald Dahl. Divided into four sections — Good Dogs, Bad Dogs, Top Dogs, and Underdogs — and spanning such subjects as evolution, domesticity, love, family, obedience, bereavement, language, and more, this lavish tome embodies what Malcolm Gladwell eloquently observes in the introduction: “Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs.”

(h/t to Maria)