My Favorite Design Articles of 2021

Dan Saffer
5 min readJan 2, 2022


The 100 Best Pens, As Tested by Strategist Editors by Karen Iorio Adelson and Lauren Ro

At its most basic, a pen has to do just one thing, but there are so many reasons to choose one over another. Does it glide along the page, or does it drag? Does the ink flow in a smooth line, or is it unpredictable? Does the pen feel good or would note-taking cramp your hand? And how does it look? With so many varieties out there, from plastic ballpoints sold by the dozen to thousand-dollar fountain pens hunted down by collectors, we became determined to find the very best pens for everyday use.

The Lost Designer by Scott Berkun

Design culture makes us prone to cognitive dissonance, where two competing ideas exist in the same mind. For example, many designers want to feel special, because in some ways we are, but yet we’re surprised when other people do not understand us or find us pretentious. We want other people to use our ideas, but don’t feel we should have to explain or persuade. We want privileges like power and control, but don’t want the politics or relationships required to earn and wield them. Logically we can’t have it both ways, but often we behave as if we should. It’s true that all people are prone to cognitive dissonance but as an uncommon profession, it hurts us more than most.

Five Superpowers of Diagrams by Abby Covert

Diagrams are not only one of the most accessible design methods to teach to non-designers, they are also good at solving non-design problems, and are helpful to all sorts of people experiencing all sorts of V.U.C.A. [Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity]. This might be why we humans have been adding contexts, technologies and circumstances that lean on diagrammatic thinking (outside just design thinking) for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Working with Brian Eno on design principles for streets by Dan Hill

The whole point of cities is culture, not efficiency — at least ‘culture’ in the multiple senses that Raymond Williams described: processes of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development; particular ways of life, or patterns of living; and practices of cultural production, embodying and articulating what we stand for as society.

And if we recognise that streets are the basic unit of cities, then they must be about culture too; they convey what we stand for. This simple repositioning means that engineering and traffic planning sensibilities are recognised as being necessary enablers — but they are clearly not the point. This means decision-making around streets can be realigned around more meaningful questions: such as What is a good street? And who for?, rather than the crudely damaging How might this thoroughfare best accommodate 1000 vehicles per day? In other words, strategic design involves changing the mental models that are used to frame the question of the street, redesigning the conditions that produce the street.

A Primer of 29 Interactions for AI by Chris Noessel

Narrow Artificial Intelligence can seem overwhelming. AI is a complicated thing and is understandably filled with intimidating computational jargon. In this article I’m going to do something foolhardy, and that’s to tell you — the interaction designers — don’t panic. For our jobs, the basics of AI are probably simpler than you think.

Affluenza and Design by Cheryl Platz

For big, risky projects at big companies, you’re more likely to see seasoned leaders who are well-compensated for their efforts. Those leaders live different lives than the customers they’re designing for, but they may still see themselves as the common denominator customer they once were. Without the humility to question everything and dig deeper for context, this perception gap — this “affluenza” — leads to technology solutions in search of real problems and real people.

There‘s No Such Thing As ‘System Designers’ (and Other Random Thoughts On the Scales of Design) by Cornelius Rachieru Jr.

I firmly believe systems cannot be designed. At least not in the classic sense of the word we use at every other level below it. You can intervene in, influence, analyze, visualize or map systems, but generally they are too big to be ‘designed’ by a single entity, let alone a single individual. How do you ‘design’ societal systems like poverty? Or justice? Or finance? Or ecology?

If you believe that assembling a design system in the UX sense of the word makes you a systems thinker, I tend to disagree with that as well. A system is characterized from having multiple facets that are revealed by looking at it from different perspectives. A Design System is typically a single perspective endeavour (that of a digital designer), and is reductionist in nature (as in, components are literally the sum of their parts), as opposed to the holistic nature of systems in general.

How to Convince Yourself to Do Hard Things by David Rock

We are wired to move toward things that make us feel good and away from things that make us feel uncomfortable. Our brains tag effort as bad because it’s hard work. They default to what feels “normal” — the networks that tell us where and how to travel through our daily existence. Those networks are so deep in our thinking that when we’re traveling a new and challenging path — regardless of what that path is — our wheels default back to the worn-in grooves.

UX Design has a dirty secret by Tanya Snook

When you dig beyond the surface of the many projects touting themselves as beacons of user-centricity, it seems there are almost more projects branding themselves as user-centered design than there are projects that are actually user-centered design.

When you get past the rhetoric and the post-its, you can start to see that there’s very little “user” in the user experience. It’s all lip service: Everyone is role-playing the part of the user, and the requirements are make-believe. And the resulting experiences are difficult to use, costing users time, money, privacy, or even safety.

Beyond Engagement: Aligning Algorithmic Recommendations With Prosocial Goals by Jonathan Stray

As is true of AI in general, many of the problems with recommenders can be traced to mismatches between a theoretical concept and how it’s operationalized. For example, early news recommender systems operationalized “valuable to user” as “user clicked on the headline.” Clicks are indeed a signal of user interest, but what we now call “clickbait” lives entirely in the difference between user value and user clicks.

The most popular design thinking strategy is BS by Tricia Wang

In my data work with corporations as a tech ethnographer, I’ve seen How Might We used to hide biases and assumptions. Worse, I’ve seen it exacerbate the lack of diversity on design teams and within corporations at large. The “we” in HMW refers to the people in the room, not to the users, customers, or populations for whom teams are designing their products and services. The prompt looks inward instead of outward, encouraging people to build solutions that suit their own needs and experiences. They end up with offerings that don’t serve customer needs, and may even hurt the people they’re meant to help.