Book Review: A Few Minutes of Design

This new set of cards offers 52 activities intended to “Spark Your Creativity.” The cards run the gamut of design, from typeface to architecture, divided into colour-coded suites on different themes. Their appearance is engaging—colourful, with attractive, vivid photographs. Unfortunately, the activities are less so. This reviewer field-tested the cards with two groups: a gathering of architects, and a family of kids who aren’t especially focused on design. The response was lukewarm, which is not what you want from a set of cards meant to excite people about design.A Few Minutes of Design

The set is by Emily Campbell, who has a background in design and the design education of children. Perhaps for this reason the cards serve more as a meditation on what makes design tick, rather than engaging users in the design process. Many of the tasks seem condensed from what might be a week-long project—for example, look for forms in a picture of an engine, and then create a new form based on them. Distilling this to an ostensibly five-minute task robs it of its potential richness.

The bigger problem is that the assignments (because this is what they often feel like) use examples of design—a set of icons, a typeface—as the basis for instructions like “What rules would govern the shape of nos. 2 and 3? Draw them.” There may be such a thing as “design principles”—this set seems to assert that design should be logical and pleasing. But that’s not where design generally starts.A Few Minutes of Design

A few of the problems are open-ended in the right way—for example, jumbles of lines that the reader is encouraged to join together. But most seem quite proscriptive, even when not trying to be. While as a writer I like words, the accompanying texts hem in the reader. They could be edited down by half, which would help make the tasks more open. Other activities are too abstract. If you want to explore how two objects might be joined together, the way to do it is by playing with the objects themselves, not by drawing them from photographs.

Considering that the set is clearly conceived as a pack of cards, it is a lost opportunity that there doesn’t seem to be any way to turn them into a game. Or to use the cards themselves as tools—stencils perhaps, or building blocks to be stacked or slotted together. That was the approach taken by Charles and Ray Eames’s House of Cards, an altogether more playful (and oblique) introduction to design.

However, this card set did generate in each test group a discussion of “what is design?” These cards, while trying hard, don’t have the answer. Perhaps raising the question is enough.

Lawrence Bird, MRAIC is an architect, planner and visual artist. He works at pico Architecture in Winnipeg.