Books You Should Read: The Design Of Everyday Things

With everything from APIs to Raspberry Pis making it even easier for us to create and share objects shaped by personal whim, it’s high time that Don Norman’s sage design advice falls on not just the design student, but the hardware hacker and DIY enthusiast too. Grab yourself a coffee and a free weekend, and settle into the psychology of people-struggling-how-to-use-that-widget-they-just-purchased in The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition.

Who’s to blame for a door that opens with a pull when everything about how it looks says it should open with a push? In Don Norman’s world, it’s not you; its the designer. Enter a world where blame is inverted and mistakes can be critically categorized. Norman takes us example by example showing us how common items in the world poorly serve the needs of their user, mainly because the designer simply ignores key aspects of our humanity. This book is a crisp, concise overview of human psychology when applied to engaging with things combined with a language of ideas to help us apply this psychology to better interactions. (And it reads like butter!)

Opening Up to the Language of Design

What’s an affordance, you might ask? Well, simply put, it’s a way that an object can be used by a human. How about a signifier? That’s a communication “signposting” scheme that object uses to suggest to you how it should be used. If that sounds a bit fluffy, just think about the last time you tried to push open a door that needed to be pulled. Something about that door was suggesting that you could push it open, but it couldn’t! It “fooled” you because all the object’s signifiers were telling you otherwise.

But Don Norman goes beyond a vocabulary that inverts our understanding of how we engage with objects and gives us another fresh perspective on how we make mistakes with out devices. Once again, these errors aren’t something to be ashamed of, but are categorizable interactions with our devices that, once understood, can be designed to accommodate or designed out altogether. Errors actually come in two large categories: mistakes and slipsMistakes are, by and large, errors in planning, and slips are errors of action. Have you ever set your alarm for 7PM when you meant AM? That’s a slip. Or perhaps you forget some items on your grocery trip? That’s a mistake But there are actually multiple subcategories, each clearly explained with examples from real life, often accompanied by disastrous consequences that may have been preventable with different design choices. Norman’s language for understanding mistakes is precise. And with this precision, we too can unpack everyday “mistakes” into a systematic way that lets us understand why they happened and how to mitigate or prevent them.

Here lies the power of the book. It’s a grammar book, one that teaches us the language of designers. Armed with the grammar of design, we can start to see the choices of designers and start making some thoughtful design choices ourselves.

A Refreshing New Look

Once you read this book, I’ll warn you. Though you may be armed with a new language, be careful with your criticism when you re-enter the world beyond that comfy armchair and empty coffee cup. Yes, in a way, this new vocabulary feels like a clever way to point a finger at “bad design.” And sure; with these new words and clearly articulated descriptions, we can do that. But let Don Norman do the blaming for you. This book is already riddled with examples of bad design drawing from either history or Norman’s personal experience. Instead, let’s put it to good use. The Design of Everyday Things is an opportunity for us as creators to reflect on how we communicate, how we suggest experiences, to the people who use our creations. So let’s make sure those experiences are good ones.

Side Note: the Revised and Expanded Edition of this book reads very differently from the original edition released way back in 1988. I strongly suggest finding the latest version if you can help it since so many of the examples have been brought up to speed with our times.

Books You Should Read: The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

For many of us, our passion for electronics and science originated with curiosity about some device, a computer, radio, or even a car. The subject of this book has just such an origin. However, how many of us made this discovery and pursued this path during times of hunger or outright famine?

That’s the remarkable story of William Kamkwamba that’s told in the book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Remarkable because it culminates with his building a windmill (more correctly called a wind turbine) that powered lights in his family’s house all by the young age of fifteen. As you’ll see, it’s also the story of an unyielding thirst for knowledge in the face of famine and doubt by others.

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Books You Should Read: Exact Constraint: Machine Design Using Kinematic Principles

Surely, if you’re reading this website you’ve teased the thought of building your own 3D printer. I certainly did. But from my years of repeated rebuilds of my homebrew laser cutter, I learned one thing: machine design is hard, and parts cost money. Rather than jump the gun and start iterating on a few machine builds like I’ve done before, I thought I’d try to tease out the founding principles of what makes a rock-solid machine. Along the way, I discovered this book: Exact Constraint: Machine Design Using Kinematic Principles by Douglass L. Blanding.

This book is a casual but thorough introduction to the design of machines using the method of exact constraint. This methodology invites us to carefully assess how parts connect and move relative to each other. Rather than exclusively relying on precision parts, like linear guides or bearings, to limit a machine’s degrees of freedom, this book shows us a means of restricting degrees of freedom by looking at the basic kinematic connections between parts. By doing so, we can save ourselves cost by using precision rails and bearings only in the places where absolutely necessary.

While this promise might seem abstract, consider the movements made by a 3D printer. Many styles of this machine rely on motor-driven movement along three orthogonal axes: X, Y, and Z. We usually restrict individual motor movement to a single axis by constraining it using a precision part, like a linear rod or rail. However, the details of how we physically constrain the motor’s movements using these parts is a non-trivial task. Overconstrain the axis, and it will either bind or wiggle. Underconstrain it, and it may translate or twist in unwanted directions. Properly constraining a machine’s degrees of freedom is a fundamental aspect of building a solid machine. This is the core subject of the book: how to join these precision parts together in a way that leads to precision movement only in the directions that we want them.

Part of what makes this book so fantastic is that it makes no heavy expectations about prior knowledge to pick up the basics, although be prepared to draw some diagrams. Concepts are unfolded in a generous step-by-step fashion with well-diagrammed examples. As you progress, the training wheels come loose, and examples become less-heavily decorated with annotations. In this sense, the book is extremely coherent as subsequent chapters build off ideas from the previous. While this may sound daunting, don’t fret! The entire book is only about 140 pages in length.

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Books You Should Read: Designing Reality

These days, budget CNC builds are mainstream. Homebrew 3D printers and even laser cutters are old hats. Now I find myself constantly asking: “where’s it all going?” In the book, Designing Reality, Prof Neil Gershenfeld and his two brothers, Alan and Joel, team up to answer that question. In 250 pages, they forecast a future where digital fabrication tools become accessible to everyone on the planet, a planet where people now thrive in networked communities focused on learning and making.

Designing Reality asks us to look forward to the next implications of the word “digital”. On its surface, digital  means discretized, but the implications for this property are extreme. How extreme? Imagine a time where cnc-based fabrication tools are as common as laptops, where fab labs and hackerspaces are as accepted as libraries, and where cities are self-sufficient. The Gershenfelds invite us to open our eyes into a time where digital has vastly reshaped our world and will only continue to do so. Continue reading “Books You Should Read: Designing Reality”

Books You Should Read: Sunburst And Luminary, An Apollo Memoir

The most computationally intense part of an Apollo mission was the moon landing itself, requiring both real-time control and navigation of the Lunar Module (LM) through a sequence of programs known as the P60’s. Data from radar, inertial navigation, and optical data sighted-off by the LM commander himself were fed into the computer in what we’d call today ‘data fusion.’

The guy who wrote that code is Don Eyles and the next best thing to actually hanging out with Don is to read his book. Don’s book reads as if you are at a bar sitting across the table listening to his incredible life story. Its personal, hilarious, stressful, fascinating, and more importantly for those of us who are fans of Hackaday, it’s relatable.

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Books You Should Read: The 3D Printing Handbook

3D printing was invented in the 80s, twenty years passed, patents expired, and then several diverse uses for 3D printing technology were found. As such, the tips and techniques for 3D printing — especially filament-based printing — have been discussed and documented almost entirely on the Internet, mostly in chat rooms, forums, and YouTube videos. Everything you could ever want to know about 3D printing is available on the Internet, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to find it.

There have been dozens of books published as a guidebook to 3D printing over the years, and some of those are even in their second edition. Yes, despite the disappearance of 3D printers from the headlines of TechCrunch, and despite the massive public disillusionment of computer-controlled hot glue guns, there are still people that want to learn about 3D printers. There’s actually a market for 3D printing guidebooks, and people are buying them.

The latest such guidebook for 3D printing is The 3D Printing Handbook from 3D Hubs. 3D Hubs has been around for a while, and can best be described as, ‘3D Printing as a Service’. The usual use case for 3D Hubs is that someone would upload a 3D model to 3D Hubs, and get a quote from someone with a 3D printer. This quote could come from a professional 3D printing outfit with machines that cost more than a house to someone with a LulzBot or Prusa in their garage. 3D Hubs is going to be fantastic when people realize you can do CNC milling on the service as well.

This book was written by Ben Redwood, Filemon Schöffer, and Brian Garret, all employees of 3D Hubs. In one way or another, 3D Hubs has a hand in every conceivable type of 3D printing technology, and this book aims to be an introduction to the uses of these technologies, and a guidebook on how to use 3D printing technology the right way. There’s a question with this book: does it live up to expectations, and for that matter, can any book live up to the expectation of being a ‘guide to 3D printing?’

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Books You Should Read: V-2 By Walter Dornberger

In an era where we can watch rockets land on their tails Buck Rogers-style live on YouTube, it’s difficult to imagine a time when even the most basic concepts of rocketry were hotly debated. At the time, many argued that the very concept of a liquid fueled rocket was impossible, and that any work towards designing practical rocket powered vehicles was a waste of time and money. Manned spacecraft, satellite communications, to say nothing of landing on other worlds; all considered nothing more than entertainment for children or particularly fanciful adults.

Walter Dornberger (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1980-009-33 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

This is the world in which V-2, written by the head of the German rocket development program Walter Dornberger, takes place. The entire history of the A-4/V-2 rocket program is laid out in this book, from the very early days when Dornberger and his team were launching rockets with little more than matches, all the way up to Germany’s frantic attempts to mobilize the still incomplete V-2 rocket in face of increasingly certain defeat at the end of World War II.

For those fascinated with early space exploration and the development of the V-2 rocket like myself, this book is essentially unparalleled. It’s written completely in the first person, through Dornberger’s own eyes, and reads in most places like a personal tour of his rocket development site at the Peenemünde Army Research Center. Dornberger walks through the laboratories and factories of Peenemünde, describing the research being done and the engineers at work in a personal detail that you simply don’t get anywhere else.

But this book is not only a personal account of how the world’s first man-made object to reach space was created, it’s also a realistic case study of how engineers and the management that pays the bills often clash with disastrous results. Dornberger and his team wanted to create a vehicle to someday allow man to reach space, while the Nazi government had a much more nefarious and immediate goal. But this isn’t a book about the war — the only battles you’ll read about in V-2 take place in meeting rooms, where the engineers who understood the immense difficulty of their task tried in vain to explain why the timetables and production numbers the German military wanted simply couldn’t be met.

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