I Miss My Pencil, by Martin Bone and Kara Johnson is a highly unusual design book in that it’s not just about the final product, it’s not about dry process and it’s not about trying to build a egocentric design legacy. Through all the modern day technologies of today like IM, email and face to face communication, Bone and Johnson work in parallel talking about projects that don’t yet exist. They use their discussions as starting points for experiments that in the end may or may not become products and may or may not be successful. For a number of topics they interviewed people they admired for what they do and used that information as another driving force to see what they could design. Those back and fourth communications are illustrated by different typefaces for both Bone and Johnson. To display the bursts of discussion their words are displayed like an IM talk would look like. Because there’s a relaxed nature to what they’re driving at, the reader almost feels like their being invited into an intimate discussion. The discussion doesn’t feel forced.
As they both authours work through issues together, their thinking skills are put on display. The buildup of ideas and how they work is incredibly valuable to anyone wanting to learn more about design process. While it’s easy to diagram a process in a linear manner, it rarely reflects how design actually comes to be. In this book they discard that type of diagram for a narrative that allows for unexpected results. Unexpected is probably not the right word, they had an idea in mind what they wanted to do, but their flow allowed them to explore ideas that normal commercial products might not allow. That knowledge in turn is helpful when working in the business reality. Another almost but not quite right term could be “play”. It’s exploration without constraining themselves by anyone else except themselves.
While Bone and Johnson have a great book in hand, it also is an example that any designer that wants to learn should try doing. The steps they go through could easily be replicated. All designer’s should be as curious as these two. There’s no reason why two friends couldn’t start off the same way that they did with an issue and work it through to completion—client or not. What I appreciated was that it didn’t seem like they tried to build themselves up as design superheroes, but as two designers working to challenge themselves through projects. Sometimes it didn’t turn out as hoped and sometimes it did.
As mentioned some of the starting points involved interviews with a number of people that they admired. They talked with a chef, a metal designer, a writer and a BDSM educator. There’s also some short anecdotes from a car maestro, photographer and sous-chef. Each of those people added a different layer of narrative that meshed nicely with the projects that were being made. It made the designs more about a human experience and not about an object that is going to collect dust. Another layer was that for each of the three overlapping themes of aisthetika, punk manufacturing and love+fetish they showed other designer’s examples that fit the categories. Of all of those ideas I was drawn to the Saturday watch by Peter Riering–Czekalla and the grass and test tube flowers called Bloom by Gregory Germe.
While the book is highly recommended from me there’s one example that I wished they had gone further with more exploration. There’s a two page spread of the deconstruction of the PB & J sandwich and cookies & milk. While the photos are great I would have been interested to read more about the whole thing. Did he serve them to anyone? Was there a reaction from those that tried it, did they believe that those things came from an oreo? I suppose there could be a hole book on common foods that have been deconstructed and built back up…
Most people that will read this book will probably not get to see any of the objects in person. While walking around IDEO for the book opening in New York I didn’t really put that together until I started reading the book. My favourite experience that was quite different seeing in person to reading about it in the book had to do with a camera. The camera was designed in reaction to a story written by Cory Doctorow titled Make it a Verb. In person I thought the outer shell was the lens. The shiny object was laid on its side and the large metal surface looked like a lens to me, though the fact that it wasn’t glass should have tipped me off. In any case it wasn’t until reading how the shape came to be and the fact that the photo showed the camera hanging from a ceiling that I noticed the small aperture on the side. It’s those types of experiences that are valuable to a designer. I could empathize with non designers looking at something for the first time, throwing my own sensibilities to something I’ve never seen before. It was a good learning lesson.