The Design of Design

How does Frederick P. Brooks new book, The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist compare to his classic, The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, Anniversary Edition (2nd Edition)? How much time do I want to spend trying to find out?

These were questions I asked myself as I received an email from his publicist asking if I would review the new book. I decided that it was a book I wanted to review and I wanted to look at the whole book, and not just a sample chapter or portions online. As I noted before, I’m pretty picky about which books I take time to review, and while the new book might be really great, it could also be a big disappointment and not live up to the previous book. The Mythical Man-Month is a book of mythic proportions. It is a book that I used to require any developers working for me to read. It sits in a special place in my book case. It is a tough act to follow. Nonetheless, I took the plunge, and asked the publicist for a review copy of the new book, and I’m glad I did.

I received my copy of The Design of Design earlier this week. I’ve been taking time here and there to read it and still have a long way to go. However, I’ve read enough already to state that it deserves its place next to the Mythical Man-Month. It takes a broader view and is applicable not only to those of us working in computers, but to people involved in any sort of design. As an example, it provides a great contrast between computer design and other types of design such as architecture.

He starts off each chapter with various interesting quotes, and starts the first chapter with a quote from Francis Bacon:

[New ideas would come about] by a connexion and transferring of the observations of one Arte, to the uses of another, when the experience of several misteries shall fall under consideration of one mans minde.

I have always been fascinated by how new ideas come about as well as by the connections between people with different viewpoints. This is a book for a reading club with computer scientists, architects and fashion designers. (I would love to hear a fashion designer’s thoughts about this book.)

The question of where new ideas come from is one of those great questions that many great thinkers have pondered. The book seems to offer pointers in the right direction, but at least to me, the question remains somewhat intractable.

Brooks starts off by looking at a good look at the Rational Model of design. As I read through this section, my mind wandered to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. In many ways, the Tractatus is to twentieth century philosophy what the Rational Model of design is to design.

The final proposition of the Tractatus is “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”, and it seems as if something similar needs to be said of the Rational Model of design. Yet Wittgenstein went on to write the Philosophical Investigations, which explore so much more. Likewise, Brooks goes on to explore so much more in The Design of Design.

As Brooks explored the issues of the goals and desiderata of design, my mind wandered to the question of ‘What is Quality?’ It seems as if this book needs to be read alongside Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Another diversion my mind took as I read this was thinking about how both the Mythical Man Month, as well as The Design of Design relates to what is going on in the world of the Nokia N900, and for that matter in the broader areas of Linux development and cellphone development. When you get right down to it, the IBM System 360 was a much less powerful computer than the Nokia N900. Yet the System 360 went through a design process that everyone refers back to. What has the design process for the Nokia N900 really been like? What about the design process for Maemo or MeeGo?

Readers may suggest that these are very different situations, it is like comparing a The Cathedral and the Bazaar. I think this is an important point. The System 360 is a Cathedral and everything going on with cellphones, tablets, slates and Linux is a Bazaar. The Design of Design needs to take its place in the special section of beloved books wedged between Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

Over the next few weeks, I expect The Design of Design will color my thinking about various topics I write about here. You should go out and get the book, read it, and share your thoughts.

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