A quick guide to readings

13 Aug 2006 - 10:38am
10 years ago
1 reply
839 reads
Mark Schraad

Note: I posted this to my blog (which is rarely read ;-), but thought
it might make a good starting point of discussion for the group. Many
of the posters here seem to be searching for references, short cuts
to expertise and experience, and general good insight. - Mark Schraad

A quick guide to readings

I have spent a great deal of time reading in the last few years. Much
of it wasted. It occurs to me that there are some patterns observed
that may be worth sharing. One of my personal life principles is “I
can always make more money, but not more time to live.” Time is a
much more precious commodity. And wasting time is the greatest of all
wastes. So for what is it worth… this may be worth the time to read,
and save you some time down the road. Then again, it may be a further
waste of your remaining hours…

Academic papers and publications.
Often to esoteric or theoretical to be applied (the PhD dissertation
that was the foundation of Google being a recent exception), these
are generally too specific or too theoretical to be of much direct
use to practitioners. What they do well though, is provide food for
thought, seed for expansion, and often a vision for what will be
possible or commonplace down the road. Mined well, this can be a
great place to spend you time.

Books by academics.
Some of the more productive professors in a field are those actively
engaged in the practice. My personal opinion is that too many
professors are well removed from the real world. At the same time,
too many practitioners are so “heads down” they are unaware of
current research. If you are lucky enough to live near IIT, CMU and
Stanford, you likely know one of these cross breads (most often a
lecturer, guest or associate professor) such as Dan Saffer who have
taught, researched, worked and also write. My hat is off to these
obsessively driven industry leaders. This is often very valuable stuff.

Books about our profession but that do not target us.
This may seem curios, but many books about business, design,
interaction and marketing are not targeting that market. Dan Pink and
Seth Godin are good examples of such authors. There is very little
for the savvy marketing professional to learn from a Seth Godin. He
is speaking to the CEO or manager that has never taken a marketing
class. Dan Pink, by his own admission is not an expert in design… but
he does recognize its value. Dan is a great advocate of our
profession and deserves much credit for helping to bring design
thinking to the attention of the press and business.

Barely worth the coffee table…
I have several books that are titled very topical and mean well, but
fall well short of being helpful. They are often full of images, few
words and nary a point. Most of my examples have come from
professionals at major firms and leverage that firm’s reputation. I
won’t name names, but you know who you are.

“In my experience” books.
I have also wasted time reading books by practitioners that are
neither writers, visionaries or provide much in the way of vision. I
can only guess that the intended audience is the lost entrepreneur or
manager browsing the business or web section at Borders. Usually
these are cleverly and seductively titled. Read the first chapter or
the introduction while still in the store, only then make your decision.

Case studies… war stories and the picture of success.
Often sold as recipe books or chronicles of greatness, these books
are fun to read, can provide insight, but are also very dangerous. As
much as I respect and admire Jim Collins, and enjoy reading his
books, way to many interpret these chapters as solutions for their
particular problem. The story told is one perspective, after the
fact. Evidence is missing and it is generally not the precise same
situation that you, as the reader are facing. Be ware of no
evidentiary solutions.

Techie manuals
Often great for getting up to speed late, but fast… the useful shelf
life of these books is often very short. Maybe that is why they are
so expensive. I don’t need to be on the bleeding edge, so I usually
buy them after the fact, on the sale table at a fraction of the
retail price. Some of these, however can be great! A recent example
is Dan Cederholm’s “Bulletproof Web Design.”

The outside visionaries
Very often, the problems we as designers, marketers and innovators
are facing are not specific to us. There are other sources of
information that can provide great insight. Malcolm Gladwell comes to
mind. I read nearly everything he writes. Well researched, complex
and very relevant material, explained in such a manor that it is easy
to understand. I could only dream of obtaining this skill as I am not
nearly as obsessive as Mr. Gladwell about writing. Christopher Meyer
and Stan Davis are another example of a writing team that present
topics well beyond a specific practice, but that have huge
implication to what we do.

Understanding the nature of a particular bog is important. Mine for
instance, started out as a venting mechanism while trying to figure
out the relationship between my work and my graduate research. Later,
it became a perfect positioning tool for the job hunt. Now, it is
simply a nice form of expression that I enjoy assembling. If people
read it great, if they don’t it is still fulfilling to me. Many blogs
however are full of poorly researched advice (this one at times, I
suppose as well) with a mission transparent to the reader. Some
bloggers band together to optimize tagging and search optimization.
This helps to raise their Digg ranking and eventually sell “the
book.” Beware the huckster.

Three rules that may help in evaluating readings. First, be aware of
what you know and where you are headed. Relevancy is critical.
Second, try and understand the credibility and purpose of the author
and the book. Third, know that there are very few new ideas… but many
are repackaged, over and over. And fourth (OK, I lied) understand the
Pareto Principle (also called the 80/20 rule or even as the “long
tail”) as it applies to books. Most of the real content is presented
in the first 2-4 chapters. The rest is reiteration and evidence.
Often this is worth the effort, but there is no shame in abandoning a
book prior to its finish and beyond its usefulness. Few authors (and
no sane publisher) will allow the critical information be held until
the final few chapters. Though summary chapters can be well worth the


14 Aug 2006 - 10:18am
Michael Micheletti

Let's add References to this list: Thesaurus, Idea Index, guides to symbols,
example layouts, dictionaries, design patterns. Sometimes these are books
you "read", but even if you just flip through when you need them, they can
be a big help.

And maybe this is almost too obvious for inclusion: search engine results.

Michael Micheletti
Seattle, WA

On 8/13/06, Mark Schraad <mschraad at mac.com> wrote:
> [Please voluntarily trim replies to include only relevant quoted
> material.]
> A quick guide to readings

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