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The Design of Design

May 19th, 2010 05:03 admin Leave a comment Go to comments

asgard4 writes “Coming up with sound, elegant, and easy to implement designs is not a trivial matter, as Fred Brooks, author of the classic book The Mythical Man-Month, acknowledges in his latest book The Design of Design. In many disciplines — especially in software development — the design process and how to produce good designs is relatively poorly understood. Teaching the design process to students is even more difficult. In the form of opinionated essays, Brooks attempts to summarize what we know about the design process, how it has changed over time, and how we can produce better and more elegant designs. Brooks has decades of experience designing large systems and is well known for his involvement in the design of IBM’s OS/360. Even though Brooks is a computer scientist, the book applies equally well to many other disciplines outside of software development that have a formal design process, such as architecture. A lot of his examples come from other engineering disciplines and architecture. But of course he presents the obligatory OS/360 case study as well.” Read on for the rest of Martin’s review.

The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist
author Frederic P. Brooks, Jr.
pages 432
publisher Pearson Education
rating 8/10
reviewer Martin Ecker
ISBN 0201362988
summary Inspiring new book by Fred Brooks
The book is divided into six parts, the first three of which I consider the most relevant and most interesting. In part one, Brooks starts out with a discussion of models for the design process. In particular, he presents his take on how the traditional Rational Model (or the Waterfall Model — its offspring that is better known to computer scientists) is not sufficient to achieve greatness in design because it has a too simplistic and idealistic view of the design process. Brooks then proceeds to discuss better, more iterative models for designing, for example, Boehm’s Spiral Model used in software development, which much of the newer so-called agile methodologies are based on. He argues that it is important to have a clear, concise model that can be accompanied by an easy to understand graphical representation, such as a diagram, in order to be able to teach the design process to novice designers.

Part two of the book is about collaboration and team design. On large projects there will usually be multiple designers that are forced to work together to produce a single, coherent design. The major stumbling block in team design is achieving conceptual integrity. Brooks suggests that the most important way of achieving this is by empowering a single software architect that has a high-level overview and can make the final call on different, competing design alternatives. I totally agree with this from my own experience of working on large projects where multiple people held design responsibilities. In this part of the book, the author also has a timely chapter on telecollaboration and on the impact of modern technologies, such as videoconferencing via the internet, on team design.

Part three, titled Design Principles, contains various essays on budgeting, constraints, and user involvement in the design process. There is also some interesting material on what Brooks calls exemplars in design, i.e. the reuse of previous designs as a whole or in part in creating new designs. My favorite chapter in this section of the book is the one on good style. I find that a good design doesn’t just need to be coherent and functional, it also needs to be elegant. Brooks’s definition of design style is quite good in my opinion: “Style is a set of different repeated microdecisions, each made the same way whenever it arises, even though the context may be different”. Well put.

Part four of the book, in which the author outlines his dream software system for designing houses, is the by far weakest part of the book for me. The presented “design” of the dream system is simply a list of high-level features without going into any detail, which is pretty pointless in my opinion. Part five gets more interesting again with two essays on great designers and how to foster an environment at a company to make designers great. In particular, I like the idea of having designers “eat their own dog food”, i.e. forcing them to use the end products of their designs out in the wild (maybe in form of a sabbatical at one of the system’s customers). The book concludes with seven chapters on various case studies. While these are certainly interesting, they don’t contain any additional essential thoughts on the design process that weren’t already presented in the previous parts of the book.

The Design of Design is an excellent book from one of the pioneers in computer science. Brooks’s writing style is as elegant and enjoyable as ever. While he dates himself in some of his examples, the overarching ideas of the book are timeless and important. Not many books have been written about the design of the design process itself and this book is a valuable addition. It is mostly aimed at designers and people that have spent some time reflecting on the design process itself. The casual reader and people that are more concerned with implementing designs rather than creating the designs themselves might find it somewhat intangible. However, even designers in disciplines other than computer science or software development can gain a lot from the insights in this book.

You can purchase The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers’ book reviews — to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

Source: The Design of Design

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