A Book Apart

Meet the Book: Design by Definition from Elizabeth McGuane

Jun 08, 2023

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Portion of the dark green Design by Definition book cover and a black and white badge that reads Coming Soon.

Design by Definition

by Elizabeth McGuane

We can’t wait for you to read Design by Definition, a new book by Elizabeth McGuane, launching July 25.

In the meantime, we’re giving you a peek into the book with our Meet the Book Q&A series. Read on to discover what sparked Elizabeth’s book idea, how she found flow in writing, and why people should read her book now.

A Book Apart: What was the initial spark that motivated you to write this book?

Elizabeth McGuane: I’d delivered a version of the book as a conference talk a few times, and I’d refined it to represent my principles from years of working in design—the ways I think and approach things, not just the work that I’ve done. I always thought that if I ever wrote a book, I wouldn’t want it to be just a didactic, step-by-step textbook. The nonfiction books I most like to read are those that show you how the author thinks—they make you feel like you’re looking into someone’s brain. This material felt like that to me, while still being tangible and useful.

ABA: How long did it take you to write this book?

EM: I think I set myself a deadline of four months for the initial draft—because I’d been told it usually takes “at least” four months and I am always very aspirational about time management—and it took me about five. I worked on the first draft from January 2022 until the end of May. But the thing is, that was just the beginning. There are so many stages to putting together a book, and I learned it all for the first time. I kept thinking towards the end of the process, “OK, cool, now that I know how to write a book, can I go back and start again?”

ABA: When/where did you feel most in a state of flow while writing this book? Least?

EM: Flow was very fickle. It came and went. Writing this book was about layering and sequencing ideas. It’s a lot more like UI design than I thought it would be, at least in terms of how you need to analyze and structure the parts of the narrative. It’s also like that thing where you layer the dough to make a croissant: laminating. You’re carefully layering piece by piece, looping pieces back and forth over each other, and hoping that what comes out has baked itself together so it seems like a single thing. Often this means taking out multiple metaphors to express the same idea.

ABA: How did you come up with the title for this book?

EM: The title is a joke, but it’s a joke that meant something to me. An earnest play on words, I guess you could say. The joke is the idea that this book—any book—could really define design. But it’s also quite seriously about using definitions as a way into design. I have always sensed a lack of clear definition—of problems, of spaces, of things and people—that underpins all the hardest design problems.

ABA: In one sentence, what is your book’s driving, or most important, idea?

EM: We design best when we have the right words to describe what we’re making.

ABA: Who did you write this book for?

EM: When I presented some of this material as a conference talk, I remember being surprised that it was visual designers, not content designers who approached me afterward, and they said I’d defined a part of their process they had difficulty describing to themselves. Maybe that’s where the language of ‘defining design’ first came from. So while this book is about words, I wanted it to be a tool for people who aren’t thinking about the way words work all the time. Content designers are immersed in language—words are the way we make sense of the world. I wanted that community to see themselves in the stories I tell in the book, for sure. It’s a community of people I really care about. I also really wanted to stretch my arms out a bit wider, because really what I’m writing about is the process of thinking and making things, and that’s something we all do. Also, as I began to work as a design manager and director, and managed people from many different disciplines, I learned how much we all struggle with the same things. It meant a lot to me to try to reach everyone involved in design work.

ABA: What part of the book was most challenging to write?

EM: The chapter I struggled with most concerned the topic I thought I knew best: the chapter on naming. Maybe it’s because the things I was talking about were so obvious to me that it was hard to get outside of my own head and see them afresh. Naming things has been basically my entire job, at one time or another. And it’s really, really hard to do.

ABA: Why will readers want to learn about this topic from you?

EM: I’ve been thinking about the thinking that goes into design for well over a decade, and I started out my career as a writer. I’ve worked in newspapers, agencies, freelance, and in product companies big and small. They all have the same struggle with clear expression. I think it gives me some good perspective, having seen these problems both close up and from a distance.

ABA: How do you hope the web will change once people read and apply lessons in your book?

EM: I hope people will use parts of the book to give themselves the language to describe their thinking; that it will provide some of the words they might need to pause and make space for clarity in their work; that they’ll be able to have better dialogue about the words they do use to define what they’re making; and that they’ll enjoy the process of defining what they design, rather than seeing it as a chore on the way to the visual artifact.

ABA: How did you choose the cover color for this book?

EM: “What color do you want your cover to be?” was one of the first questions I was asked when we discussed the outline, and I had no idea. Maybe most authors come into this process with a strong conviction about color, but I think I needed to write it to know what color would express it. After I’d written a draft, I chose a dark, woodsy green: it’s the color of growth, and that seemed fitting for a book about creativity and change. Jason Santa Maria patiently helped me explore a few different greens that were woodsy but still worked with ABA’s dark and light text styles, and we landed on this shade. It was a really fun part of the process.