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In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World Paperback – February 17, 2006

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Editorial Reviews


Design with a conscience: that's the take-home message of this important, provocative book. John Thackara, long a major force in design, now takes on an even more important challenge: making the world safe for future inhabitants. We need, he says, to design from the edge, to learn from the world, and to stop designing for, but instead design with. If everyone heeded his prescriptions, the world would indeed be a better place. Required reading -- required behavior.

(Don Norman, Nielsen Norman Group, author of Emotional Design)

The future is created at the intersection of business, technology, design, and culture. In the Bubble is an insightful and delightful explanation of this nexus and of how each force affects the others. Designers often miss a great deal in their educations about the real people who will use and inhabit their work. Thackara astutely illuminates a lot of what designers don't know they're missing.

(Nathan Shedroff, author of Experience Design )

In the Bubble is often delightful, stimulating, and surprising. Thackara may well emerge as a visionary voice for the wired era. For planners, designers, and anyone with an interest in the future, this book is a rich resource of inspiration, ideas, and guiding principles as well as sharply observed cautionary tales. It suggests that what the tech revolution most needs, and may already be moving toward, is a sense of purpose.

(Bill S. Kowinski San Francisco Chronicle)

Thackara has built an intricate and compelling case for the continuing impact of local action in a networked world...I hope he's right.

(I.D. Magazine)

One of Thackara's powerful concepts is that of the macroscope: instead of a microscope, which allows us to see tiny things, we need instruments to see distributed, long-term phenomena that pass unnoticed amidst the nonstop distractions of a modern go-go culture. In the Bubble is just such a macroscope, a deeply reflective meditation on the underlying changes in the structure of globalized society, and a revelation about what designers can do to make that shifting structure more robust and sustainable.

(J. C. Herz, author of Joystick Nation)

If there is one pervasive criticism of global capitalism that cuts across all ideologies, it is this: goods have become more important and are treated better than people. We are producing higher quality computers than children. John Thackara's brilliant book about quotidian design describes design innovation driven by social fiction instead of science fiction. This is design focused on what Fernand Braudel called 'everyday life': the demands and pleasures of caring for others, raising children, meaningful work, and journeying. These inspired and innovative technologies return people to the heart of the world and help them create a fulfilling life.

(Paul Hawken, Natural Capital Institute, author of The Ecology of Commerce)

Thackara's deeply informed book presents a breathtaking new map of the design landscape. With not a whisper of evangelistic zeal, In the Bubble offers an engaging narrative as well as design principles that speak to sustainability, joy, and quality of life in increasingly complex times.

(Brenda Laurel, author of Utopian Entrepreneur, chair of the Graduate Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design)

Whatever you are designing, you will want to keep this book next to you. When you are wondering what to design, you will want to pick it up and browse through it again, to remind you of all the new possibilities for design. When you worry if your design is good enough, you will want to check through the passages that you have marked, to be sure that you have provided for all the complexities that count. When you have an 'Aha!' and are confident that your design is great, you will want to check that you have matched the attributes of 'Flow.' When you have an idle moment, you will want to read through the notes, which are a good book about design in themselves.

(Bill Moggridge, Cofounder, IDEO)

An excellent new push aside that colorful pile of photo-packed publications and pick up In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, in whose pages 'design' is understood to be more about process than product, more about systems and services than about surfaces and packages, more about work to do than things to buy.


Thackara leaps nimbly from statistics to observations to anecdotes, from past to present to future, from energy to the environment, from the Burning Man Festival in Arizona to the Bombay Lunch Delivery program.

(Architectural Record)

I eagerly devoured every last page of John Thackara's lofty, captivating book.

(Bruce Sterling, author of The Hacker Crackdown and Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years)

If you've ever found yourself saying, 'bad TiVO,' design critic John Thackara is talking to you.

(Fast Company)

'To do things differently, we need to perceive things differently,' John Thackara writes. I agree! In the Bubble is the first strong, thoroughly documented statement on the importance of the local and the embedded in our fluid, hyper-connected world. A fundamental contribution to a new design culture.

(Ezio Manzini, Milan Polytechnic, author of The Material of Invention and Sustainable Everyday)

About the Author

John Thackara, described as a "design guru, critic and business provocateur" by Fast Company, is the Director of Doors of Perception, a design futures network based in Amsterdam and Bangalore. He is the author of Design after Modernism, Lost in Space: A Traveler's Tale, Winners! How Successful Companies Innovate by Design, and other books. Since 2002, he has authored the Doors of Perception blog and newsletter (

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press (February 17, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262701154
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262701150
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #116,823 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John Thackara is a writer, speaker, and event producer. He is English, but lives in France with his wife Kristi van Riet. His daughter Kate is an art student in England.

John is the author of In the bubble: designing in a complex world (MIT Press) among thirteen books, and of a widely-read blog at Design Observer. As founder and director of Doors of Perception (Doors), John organises festivals around the world, at a city-region scale, in which communities imagine sustainable futures - and take practical steps to realise them.

John studied philosophy, trained as a journalist, worked as London bus driver, and later was a book publisher and magazine editor in London and Sydney. He was director of research at the Royal College of Art in London, and then from 1993-2000 was Director of the Netherlands Design Institute in Amsterdam.

John produced seven Doors conferences in Amsterdam, and then three (so far) in India. In 2007, he was programme director of Designs of the time (Dott), the social innovation biennial in England. In 2008 he was Commissioner at Cité du Design, the main French design biennial.

He is a fellow of The Young Foundation in London; sits on the advisory boards of the Pixelache Festival in Helsinki and the Pecha Kucha Foundation in Tokyo; and is a member of the UK Parliament's Standing Commission on Design. John Thackara lives in France.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Ickx Michel on August 3, 2005
Format: Hardcover
In the Bubble

This is a very intelligent book written by a remarkable designer who is fascinated by the impact of technology on our lives. The author is neither a technophobe, nor a technophile. Techno wise would be a better description. The title of the book comes from an expression used by air traffic controllers when there are in the flow and in control of all the surrounding instruments.

Throughout the 10 chapters which cover as many aspects of, or approaches to technology, John Thackara shows a constant capacity to think "out of the box" about our complex artefacts and technical prosthesis. He never looses sight of what should be the centre of progress, namely the user.

His concern is clearly expressed in every angle from which he develops his observation. Using both the microscope and the macroscope, under criteria such as lightness, conviviality, smartness or flow, he maintains the interest of the reader through a fascinating journey of increased awareness into our everyday experiences.

If all designers and producers where able to listen to people as he does, we would indeed feel the full benefits of a more humane technology. It is not surprising that "Doors of Perception" where John gets people to share many intuitions reflected in the book, is a yearly conference held at the crossroad of different cultures.

This book is an absolute must for all of us who are deeply frustrated by an ever more complex world which so often fails to bring this feeling of being "in the Bubble" and yet who cannot put our fingers on how to change it for the better.
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48 of 57 people found the following review helpful By Gordon E. Anderson on December 9, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book has lots of interesting little tidbits, but it falls way short of its promise. In a nutshell, Thackara rushes WAY too quickly to grind a variety of axes, and as a result skips over the basic drivers of the world's situations.

At best he's clever, but at worst he's completely clueless about some of the subjects he uses as "proof" of his claims. For example, consider the passage (p70) "proving" that the world does not need additional fiber optic bandwidth:

"Only a tiny fraction of these costly fibers are currently 'lit'--as little as 3 percent by some estimates."

This kind of thing is famous within the fiber optic industry as a flag flown by the clueless. Even though many fibers are unlit, this does nothing to alleviate the very real problems of fiber exhaust on the main long-haul routes. Moreover, where high wavelength-count Wavelength Division Multiplexing is available, it is much more economic to run traffic over a single pair of fibers in the form of additional wavelengths (rather than mutliple separate fibers), to fully leverage optical amplification.

After you've seen enough ramrods like this in the book, you tend to doubt some of his more basic points.

Come to think of it, what is that point? That growth is "bad" and should stop? OK, agreed. But unless the real impact and long-term costs are somehow "felt" by designers, merely attempting to shame the world into designing better and getting his message "into our heads" is going to be like pissing in the wind.

This is why Bruce Sterling's "Shaping Things" is a far better book. Sterling "gets" that most designers are not in a position to arbitrarily add costs to their own projects, no matter how important the consequences to world may be.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Rolf Dobelli HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on December 13, 2007
Format: Hardcover
John Thackara calls himself a "symposiarch," someone who puts together groups of creative people, assigns them a lofty theme and then observes the colloquy. This book is a little like a classical Greek symposium. It's a loosely structured conversation with many voices, a freestyle rush into 10 clusters of ideas on how designers - architects, industrial designers, artists, engineers, urban planners and others - should be thinking about today's big design issues, including sustainability, needless complexity, and the frenetic pace of the social and business worlds. Does Thackara have answers? Not really. His flamboyantly expressed suggestions would probably collapse if examined carefully. But, surprisingly, the book is no weaker for that. It is not a design manual or manifesto. Rather, we find that it's a work designed to get you to free-associate and open your mind to new possibilities. If your creativity is cooling, this book may do what Kafka suggested all literary creations should do: break up the frozen sea inside you.
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By Patrick Romeo on July 14, 2014
Format: Paperback
Top 10 books i've ever read
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Selcuk Askin on April 21, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Excellent book for Multimedia/New Media designers, students and academics.
It is a must for `embedded designer`.
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