Book Review, Summary & Notes

The Shape of Design by Frank Chimero

The Shape of Design by Frank Chimero
Frank Chimero
My Rating


The Shape of Design by Frank Chimero

In The Shape of Design, Frank Chimero explains the meaning of design and communication. He talks about the beauty of the craft, the importance of context, circumstances and empowerment. You won't find specific strategies but philosophical thoughts explaining the significance of design.

Here are my notes from the book.

Biggest lesson: the world shapes us, and we get to shape the world.


In The Shape of Design, Frank Chimero takes readers on a journey through the design process.

His poetic, pragmatic approach to design will help you understand how and why you design, and help you make design a part of every aspect of your life.

Notes & Quotes

Design gains value as it moves from hand to hand; context to context; need to need.

First, design is imagining a future and working toward it with intelligence and cleverness.

Second, design is a practice built upon making things for other people.

If an artist or designer understands the objective, he can move in the right direction, even if there are missteps along the way.

Beauty is palpable, while intentions and objectives are largely invisible.

Blocks spring from the imbalanced relationship of How and Why: either we have an idea, but lack the skills to execute; or we have skills, but lack a message, idea, or purpose for the work.

To be human is to tinker, to envision a better condition, and decide to work toward it by shaping the world around us.

The Shakers have a proverb that says, “Do not make something unless it is both necessary and useful; but if it is both, do not hesitate to make it beautiful.”

Craft is a love letter from the work’s maker.

When we build, we take bits of others’ work and fuse them to our own choices to see if alchemy occurs.

The creative process, like a good story, needs to start with a great leap of lightness, and that is only attainable through a suspension of disbelief.

Find the best way to gain momentum is to think of the worst possible way to tackle the project.

Quality may be elusive, but stupidity is always easily accessible; absurdity is fine, maybe even desired.

The important realization to have from this fun – though fruitless – exercise is that every idea you have after these will be better. Your ideas must improve, because there is no conceivable way that you could come up with anything worse.

Even wandering is productive, so that is precisely what should be done.

The way one creatively wanders is through improvisation.

Ideas build on top of one another, and to do so well, one must be in the moment, actively poking at the current situation to use its opportunities as material for construction.

But all ideas, both good and bad, start young and fragile.

This delicacy requires acceptance, but rules need to be set before starting so the work has a more focused direction to travel.

Limitations allow us to get to work without having to wait for a muse to show up.

Limitations narrow a big process into a smaller, more understandable space to explore.

“Design is the method of putting form and content together.” – PAUL RAND

A short walk is more effective in coming up with an idea than pouring all the coffee in the world down your gullet.

The point of speaking, and likewise creating, is to have someone there to receive.

Design’s ability to connect requires it to be in the middle position.

Design’s connective role is meant to support the movement of value from one place to another for a full exchange.

It means that the products of design are not autonomous objects, but are creations that bridge in-between spaces to provide a way toward an intended outcome.

The design must be transformative for it to be successful.

Design and persuasion are manipulative, and if we have the skills to seduce others toward green pastures, we can also lead them off a cliff.

The tightrope walker finds his balance by keeping his momentum. If he stands still, he will fall; if he locks up his limbs, he will throw his balance off.

It is the designer’s job to figure out a way to have a problem show its actual self so that he can respond to the truth that has emerged. Getting to know a problem is a bit like getting to know a person: it’s a gradual process that requires patience, and there is no state of completion.

In other words, Irwin’s process begins by listening: to the room, his intuition, and the work as he is making it.

The primary purpose of the design is to have it do something particular, not be any particular thing.

The forms that designers produce are flexible, so long as the results serve the need.

The products of design are more negotiations of issues and responses to problems than absolute, fixed solutions, and this provides plenty of space for different takes and perspectives.

Time and place have a large impact on the products of design, because they dictate what is possible.

Story has the ability to humanize things that weren’t thought to be alive before, and I have to wonder if the inverse is true.

Stories spread through a human network, they branch and expand, to produce a hand-off of understanding between a group of people.

Consider salt in a cookie: we only taste it when there’s too much or not enough, because when the balance is just right, we hardly realize it’s there.

A gentle touch, more often than not, is all that’s needed to guide things in the right direction.

Design doesn’t need to be delightful for it to work, but that’s like saying food doesn’t need to be tasty to keep us alive.

All design is experience design – whether it is visiting a website, reading a book, referencing a brochure, interacting with a brand, or interpreting a map.

Surprise is a crucial component, because it is hard to delight someone if they expect what they are being given.

The simplest form of delightful surprise is serendipity, when we are presented with an unexpected relevancy.

This happy circumstance means that one of the best opportunities to delight the audience is when something goes wrong.

The most important element of delightful design is empathy.

Clarity and surprise are only achievable through empathy with the audience.

Create something of consequence by digging deeper and going further, even if it makes life difficult for the one laboring.

The long, hard, stupid way makes the process of design look like toiling, sweating over a drafting table, and producing piles of rejected ideas and prototypes.

Hyde’s definition mirrors the general structure of most design jobs: one person the client) hires another (the designer) to create something for a third (the audience). It is hard to imagine this situation as anything other than gift-giving when the work is made out of kindness and consideration.

Good gifts must be tailored to their recipients, so the difference between giving fifty dollars in cash and thoughtfully spending fifty dollars on someone is immense.

Attentive audiences should be rewarded with high-quality work, and there should be a symmetry to the quality of each.

The writer and media theorist Clay Shirky recently said, “We systematically overestimate the value of access to information and underestimate the value of access to each other.”

We are dependent on each other in this way – we finish each other’s sentences, fill one another’s needs, and help each other to become better. A person is not a closed system, they can never be fully self-sufficient.

It’s the words of others that teach us to speak, the expressions of life by other people that teach us how to express ourselves.

And if you look closely, and ignore the things that do not matter, what comes into focus is simply this: there is the world we live in and one that we imagine. It is by our movement and invention that we inch closer to the latter. The world shapes us, and we get to shape the world.

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