In our last review of a Jon Kolko book, Thoughts on Interaction Design Donald Norman wrote in the comments, "OK, you convinced me. I've ordered the book." We can't be sure that our review influenced his newest book Living with Complexity, but since Norman's work centered on frustrating objects, the extrapolation into systems was bound to happen. Kolko's new book Exposing the Magic of Design might seem superficially similar to Norman's to those of us in the industrial design field, but Kolko has profoundly different content.
Kolko's book is subtitled "A Practitioner's Guide to the Methods and Theory of Synthesis," and this reviewer joked that it sounded like an undergraduate film or semiotics course. Kolko himself states that "the ability to 'be playful' is critical to achieve deep and meaningful synthesis," but the tenor of the tome is far from the giant grin the author wears while using carrots as a "phone" on the cover of his previous work. Exposing the Magic of Design is blunt, direct, serious and self-assured. At less than 200 pages and full of diagrams, processes and methods, Kolko certainly didn't have time for any hand-holding. In this era of easy distraction, Exposing the Magic's interaction design requires complete attention. Perhaps that's the way the author meant it.
In our last review, Core77 mentioned that Kolko referenced all of the right bibles. In this case, he once again pulls knowledge from many disparate fields. His citations range from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow to doctor Edward de Bono's Six Thinking Hats. Jonah Lehrer, Nathan Shedroff, and Herbert Simon all receive shout outs, and those are just the ones we've heard of.
The book is predominantly Kolko's voice, but includes contribution sections from designers from the likes of frog, Continuum and Nokia. Each contributed section is titled "For Example: ..." and uses real world content to illustrate Kolko's concepts. Seeing real world sticky walls or the extraordinarily complex maps used to analyze Sun's Java platform (53 numbered variations of maps) helps to illustrate not only the complexity of the problems faced by the consumer, but just how difficult it is for interaction (and industrial) designers to orchestrate a human interaction.
The "synthesis" of which Kolko speaks is the ability to create "normalcy out of chaos," and the predominant tool for doing so is mapping. One amazing set of maps include what Kolko calls "Semantic Zoom" and "Temporal Zoom," which borrow the Eames' famous Powers of Ten metaphor and applys it to the scope of the interaction. Level 10 to the 0 is the product, but as we move towards 10 to the -2 we're zooming out toward the marketplace, and as we move into the positive power range, we're seeing features, then elements, then details. It's a wonderful metaphor and leads to some fascinating maps. The "magic" to which Kolko refers is the gulf between data (Chapter 6: Making Meaning out of Data) to insight (Chapter 8: Methods for Creating Empathy and Insight). At some point, every designer is going to be asked by a client to create the next iPod or the next Facebook. While it is easy to presume that some sort of magic took place in the act of creation, the walls of sticky notes in Kolko's book attest otherwise. It takes work. That said, starting into the multi-year trek toward the mastery that others perceive as as magic (drawing, surfing, actual slight of hand), it's nice to see that some others have taken the journey first. Kolko's book takes work to synthesize (we definitely had our fair share of notes) but once the deluge of information is sifted through, it should be a valuable resource for designers of all stripes.