Interview: Warren Berger

Warren Berger is the author of the design book Glimmer.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I’ve been a magazine journalist and occasional book author for two decades. I write a lot about business, I write about advertising and marketing, occasionally about technology. And every once in a while I write about gangsters, but just for fun.

What inspired you to write “Glimmer”?

I was doing a lot of articles for Wired and other magazines, and many of the stories  touched on design. And somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that I didn’t know what design was. Meaning, I couldn’t really define it—as a concept it seemed to mean something different to every single person you talk to. So I thought it would be interesting to write a design book for non-designers—or as Good magazine put it in describing the book, “it’s a design book for the rest of us.” But the funny thing is, a lot of designers ended up being the biggest fans of the book—because it articulates some of the power and potential of design in a way they already knew, but had never seen written.

What were your goals with the book?

To bring design down to earth. A lot of times it gets treated as a lofty subject for insiders, so I wanted to try to make design accessible, and show that its principles can be applicable to anyone, in any situation. Beyond that, I wanted to tell good stories. I didn’t want this to read like a textbook. The model is more along the lines of a Malcolm Gladwell book, where a subject is explored in depth, but it’s done through interesting storytelling.

Glimmer is now an online community. Did you always plan for this project to live on beyond the printed page?

No, I think that idea developed gradually, as I realized that there is a community of people out there hungry for information about how design is changing the world, and they want to know if they can be a part of that movement. So I created as a potential gathering place for people who are interested in design in this way. Not for people who want “design porn” – you know, where you gaze at cool sleek objects all day long and covet them. There are plenty of sites that do that already, but GlimmerSite is more about, “Gee, I wonder if principles of design could make our schools better, or our prisons? And I wonder if some of these principles might apply to my own life and career?” There’s a lot of discussion around issues like that.

If a designer could only take one thing away from your book what would it be?

That design is about potential and possibility and reinvention. And that we need that more than ever now.

If a non-designer could only take one thing away from your book what would it be?

That there is no such thing as a “non-designer.” In today’s world, we’re all designers in one way or another. We’re designing the world around us. We’re either doing that thoughtfully, or not. So if you’re gonna be a designer anyway, why not know a little more about it, and how to do it well.

Are there some specific examples of design changing the world that you find inspiring?

There are examples everywhere, and I tried to capture as many as I could in Glimmer. A guy who’s redesigning prosthetics in amazing ways, people designing new ways to transport and purify water, a guy who designed a peanut sheller that is literally changing the world for women in African villages, the woman who redesigned prescription medicine bottles, the woman who’s looking at how to redesign the way we treat senior citizens in society, the guy who designed the “15 below coat” for the homeless – these are all good stories, and they’re all designs that are having a huge impact on people’s daily lives. That’s how design changes the world—not in one grand stroke, but in incremental ways, by improving people’s lives in one area, and then it spreads to another area. When people laugh at the notion that design can change the world, it indicates to me that they have a very limited understanding of design.

After setting out to define “design,” do you feel you are any closer to the essence?

Well, I went through hundreds of definitions, including the one–“Design is the glimmer in God’s eye”–that inspired my title. But in the end, I think the definition I’m most comfortable with is one I got from Bruce Mau: “Design is the human capacity to plan and produce desired outcomes.” That’s design: We envision something better, then we set about making it a reality.

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