Saturday, February 12, 2011

Insights from ‘The Design of Design’ - Part I

I have good fortunate of meeting/interacting with some great software designers while working in Geometric Ltd and during last two years as independent consultant. I am always intrigued by how an expert software designer thinks and how he learns. As Sir Ken Robinson says the key skill in today's world is ‘knowing how to learn new things’. I think of myself as ‘Thinking Craftsman’ (i.e. someone who is thinking about his trade/craft and strives to continuously improve his/her skills). Hence ‘how an expert designer learns and becomes an expert’ is a key question for me in the quest of improving my own skills.

The Design of Design’ is a new book from Fred Brooks (Author of Mythical Manmonth). As expected, it has some great/some obvious insights but most importantly it has great explanations of these insights. In this article, I am going to discuss about insights related to how ‘expert designers become experts’.

Insight One: Exemplars in Design
This is what Fred Books says about 'exemplars'

Exemplars provide safe models for new designs, implicit checklists of design tasks, warnings of potential mistakes and launching pads for radical new designs. Hence great designers have invested great efforts in studying their precedents. Bach took a six month unpaid leave to study the work and ideas of Buxtehude. Bach proved to be much greater composer but his surpassing excellence came from comprehending and using the techniques of his predecessors and not ignoring them

I argue that great technical designers need to do likewise but that the hurried pace of modern design has discouraged this practice. ... Technical design disciplines eager to produce great designs need to develop accessible bodies of exemplars and knowledgeable critiques of them (page 154-155)
Certainly lazy or slack designer can minimize his work by picking an exemplar and just modifying it to fit. By and large, those who just copy do not draw on ancient or remote exemplars but only on those that are most recent and fashionable’ (page 162).
There are two things that came to my mind after reading this article. First is ‘Design Patterns’. “In software engineering, a design pattern is a general reusable solution to a commonly occurring problem in software design. A design pattern is not a finished design that can be transformed directly into code. It is a description or template for how to solve a problem that can be used in many different situations.”.

One purpose of documenting the ‘design patterns in software’ is to 'make experts insights available to a novice’. In this sense, ‘Design patterns’ fit perfectly into what Fred Brooks calls ‘accessible bodies of exemplars’. Personally my thinking about the software design changed after I studied patterns (especially advantages and limitations of each pattern). Even today I read and reread GoF Design pattern book, articles by Robert Martin, articles and books of Martin Fowler, books like Effective C++ and More Effective C++. Every time I gain some small new insights which enrich my own ‘body of knowledge’. Another recent good book of exemplars is ‘Beautiful Code: Leading Programmers Explain How They Think’. There are positive and negative reviews on this book. For me, this book is invaluable for its insights into how various developers think about a problem and how they come up with a solution.
Second thought was ‘about Googling’. Recently (past few years) I see many developers just google about a problem, find something and copy that code. Many times they just pick up some pattern and copy the sample code for that pattern found on the internet. But since they don’t have any real understanding of the pattern, they end with more problems. While conducting programs on ‘design patterns’ I see participants eager to get sample code rather than eager to understand the pattern, participants eager to get the ‘power point slides’ rather than reading the books and articles. So far I have not found any solution to this ‘lazy or slack designer syndrome’. Bigger problem is many of these lazy/slack designers are considered ‘good/great designers’ in their company because they can rattle of latest technology and design buzz words.

For many years I regularly read blogs, various book and studied how other good designers think out of habit.But I could not clearly explain/articulate a new comer why I am doing this. Now I know how this habit has helped me and how it can help a new comer to study his craft.

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