Scott Berkun Reveals How Design Makes the World

Posted inDesign Books
Thumbnail for Scott Berkun Reveals How Design Makes the World

Ellen Lupton. Jeffrey Zeldman. Khoi Vinh. Ashleigh Axios. Alice Rawsthorn.

These are but a fraction of the powerhouse people who provided glowing blurbs for Scott Berkun’s new book How Design Makes The World … and, well, frankly, it didn’t seem like it could live up to the hype.

… But it does. It absolutely does.

At first, some of the ground Berkun promises to cover in the TOC might seem familiar to experienced designers, but he manages to consistently surprise and delight along the way. What shines throughout is his predilection for articulating those seemingly inarticulate thoughts on design that linger on the periphery of the mind, which he then brings to life with such clarity that you want to keep a copy of the book on hand for the next time that ubiquitous question—Wait, so what do you do for work?—pops up.

All told, it’s prime reading for designers of all experience levels, and beyond, packed with discovery.

Here is one of our favorite chapters of the book—Design Is How it Works. Grab a copy here.


Imagine it’s 2:06 p.m., and you’re late for your 2 p.m. meeting with your punctuality-obsessed boss. You work in the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, among the tallest buildings in the world at 828 meters (or 2,717 feet) with 163 floors. Due to its tubular structural design, it uses only half the amount of steel that the Empire State Building does (at 381 meters tall). You bemoan these facts as you run down the long hallway to wait for one of the tallest elevators on the planet. Luck has favored you: the door is open, the car is empty and you jump inside. You push 152, for your boss’s floor, and wait. But the door doesn’t close. Not right away. You find the “close door” button and push it. Then push it again. And then one last time, and to your relief the door closes and you’re on your way.


The surprise is that it’s likely the button you pressed didn’t do anything, except light up. This is what’s called a placebo button. There are many kinds of these buttons in the world, including office thermostats and urban crosswalks in many cities that have buttons for pedestrians to “tell” the light that they want to cross.¹ In 2004, it was estimated that only 20 percent of the 3,500 buttons throughout New York City actually worked. The reason is simple: it’s not worth the cost to connect and maintain them, since most people typically don’t notice the difference. For elevators in the US, the motivation was the passing of the 1990 American Disability Act, which required doors to stay open long enough for people on crutches or wheelchairs to get inside.

Your expectation for what a button, or anything in the world, does, or how you believe it works, is what’s called a mental model. In many cases the mental models we have for how things work is shallow, or even wrong. For example, many people think evolution is a progression from inferior creatures to superior ones. The more correct model is that the creatures best suited for the current environment tend to survive, even if they are dumber, slower and “inferior.” For example, a warmer planet will help some creatures thrive, like starfish and octopus, and make survival harder for others (hint hint).

The term mental model comes from cognitive psychology, which is the study of how our brains perceive, think and interact with the world. Some designers are trained in how to use this knowledge to make better design decisions. Related to elevators and waiting for things, it’s well documented in psychology studies that most people, most of the time, like to feel in control of things, including elevators. (The degree to which you have this feeling is called the “locus of control.”) Studies have proven that when we think we’re in charge, or at least actively doing something like pushing placebo buttons, our sense of how much time something takes is reduced.² In general, good designers study the limited mental models that people have, as well as the more accurate ones, and create ways to navigate the gaps.

A classic lesson in using mental models to improve a design is the possibly apocryphal story of how one of Houston’s airports designed its baggage system. After complaints about long waits, they hired more baggage handlers, which helped, but complaints still came in.

They decided to do something unusual. They routed bags to the furthest carousel from the arrival gates, which made the walk six times longer. This sounds at first like a mistake, but it meant that when passengers arrived at baggage claim, their bags would already be there. Complaints dropped to zero. Dan Ariely, in his book Predictably Irrational, explains how surprises like this are common in human nature, and that science can explain the real factors that influence our opinions and choices.

It seems counterintuitive to design for irrationality, but people are rarely as rational as we presume. “Often the psychology… is more important than the statistics of the wait itself,” said MIT operations researcher Richard Larson,³ one of the world’s top experts on the psychology of waiting. The elevator you ran to catch to meet with your boss likely had floor-to-ceiling mirrors in front of it, another technique that gives you something to do and makes waiting feel shorter. Disney’s amusement parks are masterworks in designing for time perception: they show estimated waiting times to reduce anxiety (something elevators should do), but they also overestimate those waiting times, so customers are happily surprised.⁴

Such knowledge of psychology, and even the biology of how our bodies work, can be used against us, too. The professions of marketing and advertising depend on manipulating this knowledge. Take fast food, for example. We know that eating milkshakes and cheeseburgers every day, although tasty, won’t help us live long, healthy lives. But our brains crave sweet, salty and fatty foods, so we’re tempted. In our evolutionary history, these tastes signified large sources of calories, which were rare.⁵ We’ve survived for millions of years because of these cravings and our ability to store calories as fat to compensate for days when we couldn’t find anything to eat at all (we were all once intermittent fasters). Today, designers of advertisements use those cravings to tempt us to eat things that work against our very health.

Here’s the trap: at the moment we decide to buy another cheeseburger, or donut, or cheeseburger inside a donut, we’re evaluating only the most superficial elements of what the design of a cheeseburger is. The mental model for preferring these things dominates, since it’s fueled by our ancient genetics. And the advertisements are designed to play on that model. Perhaps they show freshly made French fries, with crisp brown edges, flying in slow motion through glorious clouds of shimmering salt flakes, or grill-marked burgers cooking over a roaring charcoal fire. The temptation in these experiences makes it easy to forget, or ignore, that the primary purpose of food is to sustain us, not just entertain us.

It’s not only the advertisements: the food itself is designed, too. A century and a half ago, most things we ate came from natural sources, without much processing, but today food in the West is more engineered,
or designed, than grown.⁶ Through the profession of food engineering, salty, sweet and fatty flavors are cheap to produce, stripped of the nutrition that was in the whole foods they came from. Engineers create flavors with the intent of stimulating our cravings beyond how natural foods can, and doing it in the cheapest way possible.⁷ Our bodies, using the same digestive system design we’ve had for thousands of years, know that something is amiss. But when the food is so cheap, and provides the most intense sweet, salty and fatty flavors, it’s hard to resist (and in some neighborhoods there are few alternatives). And afterward, with our bodies still left unfulfilled, the true model for nutrition having been ignored, we’re drawn right back into the same mistake.

When we look at something, whether it’s a cheeseburger, a storefront or a website, we’re wired to consider the most superficial elements first. We read the messages from its style: how it looks and how it makes us feel. We buy shoes and clothes often because of how they look, even if they’re not the most comfortable to wear. This is often fine provided we’re aware of the tradeoff we’re making. “I don’t mind being uncomfortable for an evening if I will look this good.” Or, “I’m drinking a bottle of good wine and as many double-decker BLT burgers with grilled cheese sandwiches for buns as I want to celebrate my birthday.” We are built for pleasure and should enjoy life when we can. The danger is that design is often used as a shallow term to describe just the surface, distracting us from what matters most. Consumer culture makes it easy to believe that the ideal life is a series of intense but shallow pleasures, rather than a balance with deeper ones. Think of what Apple found Steve Jobs said:

People think it’s this veneer—that the designers are handed this box and told, “Make it look good!” That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.⁸

Thinking about how something works means considering the totality of what that thing is for, what role it will play in someone’s entire life, and its total impact on the world. Food and agriculture produce 24 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.⁹ What you choose to eat impacts not just your body, but also the system of life we all depend on. Advertising is designed to focus us on the emotions of the moment. It promises we will feel great and be loved in the present if we buy what’s being sold.

It deliberately turns our attention away from deeper questions, like: what regrets did we feel an hour or a week after the last thing like this we bought (or ate)?

This explains why many of the things we buy end up, often barely used, in storage bins, landfills or virtual trash cans. We mistake the delight we feel at the moment of purchase as a sign that the thing we’ve bought is going to have a long and positive impact on our lives.

There are many ways to think through the true design of something, and how it works (or doesn’t work):

  • It improves your life now.

  • It improves your life for years.

  • It’s simple or rewarding to learn.

  • It works reliably and has lasting value.

  • It’s easy to repair and upgrade.

  • It’s safe for people and for the environment.

Notice how rarely some of these attributes are the focus of how things are sold. They reflect a deeper way to think about what good means. Ironically, Apple products are notorious for being hard to repair, and for using materials that are dangerous for the environment. Steve Jobs himself had a limited view, one that benefited Apple, of what it means for something to truly work well.

The intent of placebo buttons like “close door” in an elevator and of fast food cheeseburgers are different in comparison. While it’s true that placebo buttons don’t technically work in an engineering sense, the effect they have on people is a positive one, by design. The designer of a placebo button uses cognitive psychology to influence how people think and feel, but primarily does so for everyone’s benefit. Since thousands of people share elevators, or city crosswalks, if each individual could demand immediate service at any time, the system would fail. The choice is to either allow people to feel time is passing faster, or not to. Of course, a better functioning design (perhaps an estimated wait time display, that gives better feedback than simply lighting up a pressed button) would be better than a placebo, but a well-designed placebo is better than nothing.

Alternatively, fast food and its carefully constructed advertisements manipulate people’s instincts to buy and eat things that in the long term have detrimental effects on their quality of life. As a source of hedonistic pleasure, we could say eating a double cheeseburger and milk-free “shake” for dinner works well, but if we’re thinking about having a long and healthy life, consuming them as much as their makers would like us to doesn’t work at all.


Excerpted from How Design Makes The World by Scott Berkun. Copyright © 2020 Scott Berkun. Excerpted by permission of the author. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without pe
rmission in writing from the publisher.

Like most sites, Print uses affiliate links, and may receive a small commission on them.