My Favorite Design Articles of 2020

Dan Saffer
4 min readDec 8, 2020

The 10th annual (!!!) collection of the best articles nominally about design that I’ve found this year, alphabetical by author. I’m not sure if the list is shorter this year because less was written, or because I saw less, or because those of us in the US are facing a mismanaged public health crisis. Or all three, the first two caused by the last.

From Epidemics to Algorithms — How Technology Design Shapes Our Lives and Our Health” by Jenka Gurfinkel

For designers and technologists, it’s fashionable to talk about “design thinking,” and how do we bring that into our organizations to make the products and services we create more intuitive and easy-to-use and sticky. But today it’s easier than ever to design highly usable experiences that degrade the health of the people who use them. So how do we move beyond just design thinking? How do we embed health-thinking into our products and design decisions?

The monkey, the tiger beetle and the language of innovation” by Courtney Hohone

Astro Teller coined the phrase “tackle the monkey first” — as in, if you’re trying to teach a monkey to stand on a pedestal reciting Shakespeare, what should you spend your time and money on first? Most companies end up wasting resources on pedestals because it feels great to make progress and have something to show your boss. But pedestal-building doesn’t teach you a thing about the riskiest, most critical problem: getting the monkey to recite Hamlet.

Eight Marvelous & Melancholy Things I’ve Learned About Creativity” by Matthew Inman, The Oatmeal

There’s a lot of shame associated with backpedaling; things like quitting your job, getting a divorce, or simply starting over are considered shameful. But forward isn’t always progress and backwards isn’t always regress. Sometimes going down the wrong path isn’t a mistake—it’s a construction line. It exists only to be erased later so that underneath you can find something better.

How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future” by Jill Lepore, The New Yorker

Simulmatics failed. And yet it had built a very early version of the machine in which humanity would find itself trapped in the early twenty-first century, a machine that applies the science of psychological warfare to the affairs of ordinary life, a machine that manipulates opinion, exploits attention, commodifies information, divides voters, atomizes communities, alienates individuals, and undermines democracy. Facebook, Palantir, Cambridge Analytica, Amazon, the Internet Research Agency, Google: these are, every one, the children of Simulmatics.

How Microsoft Crushed Slack” by Casey Newton, The Verge

If there’s a lesson of the past four years, it’s that thoughtfulness and craftsmanship only got the company about 10 percent as far as Microsoft did by copy-pasting Slack’s basic design. In its open letter, Slack famously told Microsoft: “You’ve got to do this with love.” In 2020, looking at Slack’s size, the idea seems laughable. What’s love got to do with it?

How Apple Is Organized for Innovation” by Joel M. Podolny, Harvard Business Review

Another issue that emerged was the ability to preview a portrait photo with a blurred background. The camera team had designed the feature so that users could see its effect on their photos only after they had been taken, but the human interface (HI) design team pushed back, insisting that users should be able to see a “live preview” and get some guidance about how to make adjustments before taking the photo. Johnnie Manzari, a member of the HI team, gave the camera team a demo. “When we saw the demo, we realized that this is what we needed to do,” Townsend told us. The members of his camera hardware team weren’t sure they could do it, but difficulty was not an acceptable excuse for failing to deliver what would clearly be a superior user experience. After months of engineering effort, a key stakeholder, the video engineering team (responsible for the low-level software that controls sensor and camera operations) found a way, and the collaboration paid off. Portrait mode was central to Apple’s marketing of the iPhone 7 Plus. It proved a major reason for users’ choosing to buy and delighting in the use of the phone.

The Equality Conundrum” by Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker

Deep equality is still an important idea — it tells us, among other things, that discrimination and bigotry are wrong. But it isn’t, in itself, fine-grained enough to answer thorny questions about how a community should divide up what it has. To answer those questions, it must be augmented by other, narrower tenets.

Design’s Unsexy Middle Bits” by Christina Wodke

Design thinking is just an approach to getting a handle on wicked problems. Design is all about executing that approach effectively. Designers often refer to these two elements as finding the “right design” and “designing right.” Design thinking is an approach to the first item but design is much more.