In MAKE’s current issue, editorial director Gareth Branwyn wrote a laudatory review of David Kadavy’s Design for Hackers. “Given the extent to which our world has become digital and virtual,” Gareth wrote, “those coding its software and user interfaces and threading the web should all learn what this book has to teach.”

If you haven’t picked up a copy of the book yet (and you should) here’s an excerpt about what David calls “design literacy.” Enjoy.

One evening, I was “moworking” in a cafe with my friend Ziad, coding some design tweaks to the WordPress template for my blog. Ziad always has a way of saying abstract things that break my concentration and split my brain wide open, and this evening was no exception: “One thing about design is that it’s this mysterious thing. The people who know it can’t seem to explain it. It’s like if you want them to teach you something about design, they just chalk it up to talent.”

Ziad’s comment did strike me as interesting, but the true weight of it took about a year to sink in. First came the realization that someone who wasn’t a designer by trade would actually want to learn about design. Being able to design was something I had taken for granted. It was a great skill to have, especially when creating my own apps or participating in weekend hackathons, such as Django Dash or Rails Rumble. I could create this perception of quality, this value, out of thin air. But, not being much of a back-end coder, I was envious of the fact that my design wasn’t worth a thing without the magic robot words behind it, which developers knew how to create.

Second, I realized that design skills are a new kind of literacy. The whole reason why I had suffered the consequences of poor handwriting was because handwriting was a part of communication. The only reason that I could write anything at all was that I was literate.

This idea sounds very simple, but it’s pretty novel in the scope of human history. Most people in America today know how to read and write, but even just a couple hundred years ago, this was not the case. For people to learn how to write, they had to know how to read. For people to learn how to read, they had to have access to writing. To have access to writing, someone with the ability to read and write would have to produce something with writing in it, like a book.

But books have only recently been affordable to common people in the civilized world. Johannes Gutenberg printed the first book, the 42-line Bible (see Chapter 3) in 1455. Books very rapidly dropped in price over the next 100 years, but before Gutenberg’s Bible, books had to be written by hand. So, it’s no surprise that few people, aside from the clergy, knew how to read or write.

Today’s world is, of course, vastly different. Not only can most of us read and write, but we don’t even have to worry about our handwriting. Desktop publishing, and even the ability to publish on the Internet, is available to the majority of people in the industrialized world.

Not only can we publish our words, but we can design them. We have access to thousands of fonts. We can change colors and sizes of fonts with a few clicks. We can edit and publish photos and illustrations with our words.

We’re all modern-day printers. We can create flyers, postcards, PowerPoint presentations complete with animations. We can create blogs, posters, and even coffee mugs.

But few of us are design literate. Sure, matters of design taste are starting to creep into our world. There are backlashes over ugly fonts, such as Comic Sans (see Chapter 3). Much like having poor handwriting, not having design literacy results in miscommunication. Fonts, colors, layout, and the proper usage of white space all affect how our message is conveyed, and nearly all of us have the ability to manipulate these factors. The world is in need of design literacy.

MAKE Volume 32: Design for Makers

Forget duct tape and baling wire — now makers can design and manufacture things as beautiful as Apple and as slick as Dyson and Audi. We’ll show you how to conceive and visualize great-looking projects with our speed course in industrial design — then build them with tools like vacuum forming and laser cutting, and finish them with cases and interfaces that are artful, ergonomic, and irresistible.

Plus you’ll get 23 great DIY projects like the Nellie Bly Smoker, the Awesome Button, the World Control Panel, LED Little Big Lamp, Laminar-Flow Water Fountain, and Keyless Lock Box, and meet amazing makers like costumer Shawn Thorsson, flying motorcycle builder Deszo Molnar, and more.