Scott Berkun is a bestselling author and popular speaker on creativity, leading projects, culture, business, and many other subjects. He’s a former interaction designer and project manager who worked for many years at Microsoft and

Scott’s the author of eight books, including The Myths of Innovation, Confessions of a Public Speaker, and The Year Without Pants. His work has appeared, in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Guardian, Wired magazine, USA Today, Fast Company, National Public Radio, CNN, NPR, MSNBC, and other media.

In this week’s episode of the podcast, we talk about Scott’s book: How Design Makes The World and how he thinks of design as a verb. We also discuss inclusivity and exclusion when it comes to design and design firms. This episode is packed with things to consider in your own work.

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Episode Notes

Scott’s website:
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Related Episodes

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Episode #131: Dan Roam

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Welcome back to the PolicyViz podcast. I am your host, Jon Schwabish. Happy June everybody. I hope you’re all well and healthy and safe. As we near the end of this season of the PolicyViz podcast, just a couple more episodes for this season, I’ll be taking off the month of July and August to rest and relax. And I’m also gearing up for the 200th episode of the podcast. That’s right, episode number 200 comes your way at the end of June. And I have yet to figure out what will be special about that episode, but make sure you tune in, because I’m sure I have something fun that will be planned for that particular episode. 

Now, I hope you’ve been checking out what’s going on, on Policyviz on the blog, I’ve been running a lot of different types of things lately. I’ve done a bunch of Excel tutorials. And I’ve also been expanding the YouTube channel, so I have more videos about different types of charts. So if you haven’t checked out the One Chart at a Time series, I really do recommend it. There’s more than 50 videos on there. You can learn about all sorts of different types of charts and graphs and diagrams. I also have more Excel tutorials on there. So if you’re interested in expanding your Excel capabilities, please go over and check it out. And I have a few of the things planned that I’ll be working on over the next few months. So if you want to get a sneak peek and preview of what I’m working on, consider checking out and subscribing to the newsletter. The newsletter comes out every other week right before the podcast. You’ll get a sneak peek of what’s going on behind PolicyViz, you get a sneak peek on the guest of that week’s podcast episode. 

So onto the podcast, I’m really excited for this podcast because Scott Berkun is on the show. Scott has written the new book How Design Makes The World. It is a fantastic book. It’s a really nice, quick read. And as you’ll hear in this week’s episode of the show, Scott talks about design, not as the way probably many of us in the data visualization and presentation fields think about it as good color or good font or good layout, but he thinks of it more as a verb. And so, we’re going to talk about a broader aspect of how design works and how it can be better used in our world. Scott, as you may, as you hopefully know, is the bestselling author of eight books, including one of my favorite books on presentation, Confessions of a Public Speaker. He also wrote the book The Year Without Pants, which of course is very applicable in our last 12 to 14 months; and his new book, as I mentioned, How Design Makes The World. So we talk about his book in this episode, we talk about different types of design, we talk about inclusivity and exclusion when it comes to design and design firms, and all sorts of other things that I think you will find really valuable in your own work. So I’m going to pause here and send it over to the podcast episode. I hope you’ll enjoy this week’s episode of the PolicyViz podcast with Scott Berkun.

Jon Schwabish: Hey, Scott, how are you? Welcome to the podcast. 

Scott Berkun: I am good. Thank you for having me. I’m glad to be here. 

JS: I am very excited to chat with you. We’re going to focus a lot on your new book How Design Makes The World, but I actually found out about you from your previous books about presentation skills, that’s where I found about you and I love your presentation book. You’ve got this like personality in your writing, the sort of like lightheartedness – is that like purposeful and intentional? 

SB: It is, and it’s connected back to this idea design actually, because a book is like – a book is a relationship. People buy a book, oh I am going to learn this thing, oh I am going to understand this thing. Then they open it and it’s dry or it’s boring or it’s self-involved, and so I always think of writing as it’s a kind of design process. I’m trying to design an experience for the reader, so they feel comfortable, they feel like they’re having a conversation with some smart but also accessible and interesting person. So that was entirely by design, especially for presentation books, which, by and large, can be really uptight and sound like they’re written by someone who has studied rhetoric or always gives perfect presentation. So I’m like, no, that’s not the way the world works, most presentations are terrible, here’s the straight story, that’s what I try to do in the books that I write.

JS: Yeah, that’s great. So I’ll link to all of your books, but I do, for folks who are interested in presentation skills, the Confessions of a Public Speaker is one of my favorite presentation books, so I do recommend people check that out. But let’s talk about your new book, How Design Makes The World. It’s a really great book. It was such an easy read to back to where we’re just talking about, but I wanted to ask you, just maybe tell folks a little bit about the core message of the book, and then I have a few specific things maybe we can talk about.

SB: Sure. Yeah. Well, the core message of the book is really, for anyone who’s been paying attention, especially for the last year and a half, there’s a lot of stuff that we use and depend on that isn’t designed very well. And we are very proud of our technologies like, oh, we have mobile phones, the Internet, and we should be proud of these things. But at the same time, there’s a lot of aspects to how things have been built, that we depend on that are just bad. And in general, most people don’t understand how things get made, from how your mobile phone gets made, the websites you use, but also how our healthcare system works, or how our safety net works, these are all things that were designed by people. And so the goal of the book was to help everybody better understand what good design is, and how it’s done, and how to look more critically, and I mean that in the best sense, not to criticize it, but to think more clearly about what it takes to do things well, so that we can have a better design world and make better choices in our own lives about how we design things for ourselves. That was the goal of the book. Anyway, read it, it’s really short, try to make it fun, but memorable. That was the goal. 

JS: So when you think about something that’s good versus not good, do you have, like, how do you define good versus not good – is that like the Scott Berkun, like, I have a formula, I can’t tell anybody? Or is it more like a feeling? 

SB: Well, I have opinions on this, but I also know that some really smart people, like Plato and Aristotle, tried to sort this out, and they never reached a final conclusion that was satisfying either. So one key theme of the book is we make this mistake of convenience that, if we have a couch we like, we’ll say, oh, that’s a great couch, or a pair of sneakers, oh that’s… So we tend to put the goodness of something in the thing, and that’s natural. But if you want to think about design and think about what is good, that’s not enough, because you have to put an object or thing into a context. And so, one of the jokes in the book that I use to explain this is about hammers, and I tell the story about Thor’s hammer – Thor’s hammer, it flies through the air, it’s infinitely powerful, it can generate lightning and thunder and respond to Thor’s command. So it seems like an amazing hammer. But if you start to think about, wait a second, who is this for, is this for an ordinary citizen? Well, if it’s for an ordinary citizen, it’s a terrible hammer, because they can’t even pick it up. So we have to start asking the question, when we’re talking about any design or anything, a policy, an apartment, a hammer, anything, who is it for, and what problem we’re trying to solve for them? And that leads you on a path to having a useful conversation about, good, it has to be in a context. And that’s what people who are able to make better things or companies that make better things, they are very good at making sure all their brainstorming and all their idea generation is always framed in a context that’s going to set them up to solve the right problem for the right person. 

JS: Right. It’s interesting hearing you speak about this, because I probably approached your book in this way, even though it does have Legos on the cover, which folks who listen to the show know that that’s a big draw for me. But I think when people think about a design book, how design makes the world, what is good design versus bad design, they probably think about colors and fonts and layout and affordances, does the door – do I push it or do I pull it? But your concept of design is much broader than that. You’ve already mentioned healthcare and the safety net system. So I’m curious if you could talk about your vision of what design really means for everybody. 

SB: I think that that’s part of the semantic battle, I guess, around professions that the word – if you say I’m a professional designer, you’re right, a lot of people will assume, oh, you work on style, you make things look cool, or, you work on the superficial layer of something, but someone else is actually building the thing. But then in practical use, the word design gets used as a verb everywhere. If you talk to someone who designs a NASA rocket, they’re going to say we designed the engines for that rocket. If you talk to someone who’s working on a new healthcare policy, they’ll talk about policy design. And so, I’m really after the verb usage of this word and trying to promote that as a better way to think about this subject because that’s a universal verb then and that means to you, that there are shared elements for how to design a NASA rocket well, an apartment complex, a website, a mobile app. There are shared traits there, that’s what I’m after, the root of the tree. And if you can learn that, you can apply some of that knowledge to designing anything. That’s the spirit I’m after. 

JS: Got you. And everything that you just mentioned in that list, rockets, building apartment buildings, building mobile apps or mobile phones, all that really embodies the concept of team which you have a whole, I think like chapter two on teams. Can you talk a little bit about what does it mean to build a team, and then have that team create good design? 

SB: Yeah, so there’s something in our culture around ideas that goes back to probably the enlightenment of just, we love to think that creative people are lone geniuses, and they come up with – they have an epiphany, and then they’re able to instantly transform that epiphany into some new invention or new thing that changes the world. That’s the story we’re told, and we like to hear it. But the history of that story is pretty bad, like, very few people actually succeed at progressing anything on their own. There’s always a team. And this goes back even like to Thomas Edison, who, oh, what did Thomas Edison do, he invented the light bulb. It’s like, no, that’s really not what he did. Other people had patents on the light bulb. Many of Thomas Edison’s patents had lots of other people on them too. He was actually a collaborator, but that’s not the romance that we know. 

So one goal of the book was to explain how a lot of what goes wrong on projects or leads to bad outcomes has to do with just simply the design of the teams, how are the roles set up for who’s going to make what decisions, how do you set it up so people feel they have shared goals, instead of they’re working against each other. And I think the number one reason for why we end up with things that are designed poorly in the world has to do with the way organizations are designed. Most organizations are dysfunctional. Sometimes it’s in a superficial, mild way, and they can overcome those limitations; but a lot of the times, I am sure, many of the listeners can think through their work experiences, or they have a good project with good goals and good ideas, and the outcome was terrible. Why? Because this team leader and that team leader didn’t get along. So that also leads to discussions of power, and the power dynamic in an organization, and that is also a major reason why things work out well or not. It’s not the intellectual quality of the ideas. It’s something about relationships and leadership that often we want to gloss over. But those can be the real issues. 

JS: Yeah. You talk in the chapter about teams, about teams where, as you just sort of mentioned, about the power inequalities, but also about design teams that might be exclusionary, both either within the firm or in how they think about sort of the external folks. And I wanted to ask you to maybe talk about that piece a little bit, and also to sort of extend it, whether you’re thinking around what exclusion means, particularly with design – has your thinking at all changed or evolved or modified over the past year, I guess, 18 months or so, especially in the United States, since we’ve started to have, I think, a real discussion around race and equity and inclusion? 

SB: Yeah, I think the default notion about bias and exclusion and leaving people out is that it’s sort of, you know, it’s something that happens by accident, it happens – maybe people weren’t thinking they are busy, and oh sorry, we forgot we left out these people. And I think that’s where I probably I thought about these issues of bias and design years ago. But in working on the book and doing more research on it, I realized that the default is actually the opposite. So the story in the book about a woman who’s doing research on voice recognition, and she was doing, you know, this is important research, she’s figuring out this new model and new toolkit to use, but she based her work on a technology that had been built by a team at Microsoft, for doing voice recognition for robots, and she’s working on this project. And it turns out that to demo this work she was doing, she couldn’t use her own voice, because the engineers on that project were all young men, and the young men on this project, I mean, it wasn’t a product for sale, it wasn’t this well-funded project, they just simply use their own data, their voice data to train their toolkit. They weren’t doing it intentionally. They weren’t thinking, hey, who can we leave out today. No, it’s just they’re busy, they’re trying to get stuff done, they’re trying to be agile, so they just use their own voices. That led to the exclusion of this woman who just, she had to have a man demo her work, which sounds ridiculous in a terrible way, like, what! 

But that story is a story that gets played out by default, by default. So that means that the burden then on anyone who is a decision maker, a project leader, or a designer, your job then is you have to go out of your way to recognize your biases. It’s not this thing you get for free. By free, you’re probably going to leave somebody out. And there’s lots of evidence in the stories, in the book about how projects that have done that successfully and gone out of their way to recognize the other cases and other users they should think about, it often makes the product better for everybody. It improves your thinking about what good means by recognizing there are other cases, and that’s still, I think I was late to figuring that out, that it’s an obligation, it’s not this bonus thing. And I wanted to make sure that was included in the book, that is part of design, that is part – if you think you have an idea that can make the world better, and you spend your career, you’re investing your time in doing it, if you’re going to change things, you’re obligated to learn from the past history of people who are like you and wanting to make things better, and ended up making things worse. That’s part of your [inaudible 00:15:22] part of your job. 

JS: Your job, right. 

SB: And unfortunately, it’s not taught that way. Computer science majors, which I was one, you’re not taught that. And that’s really, I think, a failure against the notion we have for progress as a society. So anyway, I wanted to make sure that should be in a book. If you’re going to explain the basics of designing something that should be part of what you were taught, this is your responsibility.

JS: Right. Now, a lot of your work and your writing is about communication, it’s about innovation, it’s about design. And I want to come back to the idea of teams. So within all of those different pieces, do you have thoughts for people who are part of a team where maybe they see that their group is being exclusionary, and let’s just make it for a final product, how can they, as the individual in the team, promote a more inclusive approach to their design, their team, their presentation, whatever it maybe? 

SB: Answering that question in a meta design way, how do you design the design to something, right? 

JS: Right. Yeah.

SB: The best answer is that you want to have a diverse team on the project. And then you build that all in, because then every discussion, every brainstorming meeting, every specification you write, you share it, hey, give me feedback on this. It’s going to be built into your culture. So in the case of the voice recognition toolkit, if instead of being a team of young white men, there was a middle aged woman, there was someone who’s African American, if you had a diverse team, then the sampling data, they’re all doing their same thing, they’re being efficient, the sample data would have been more diverse. They wouldn’t have had to worry about some extra step as much, because it’d be built in. And that’s a harder problem to solve, I’m not an expert on solving that problem. But that is really, if you are trying to solve it in the most coherent, deepest way, that’s the answer. Diverse teams tend to make products that better support diverse outcomes, and for more diverse people. It just right seems very simple to me, but hard to do. 

JS: But hard to do. And I wonder, like, you come from a computer science background, I come from an economics background, and I would suspect in both of those fields, there’s not a lot of qualitative methods taught in either of those. And I think that’s something that I’ve seen especially over the last 12 to 18 months at these qualitative methods where we actually talk to people and understand their experiences and try to build that into our work is vitally important, and yet we don’t have the training on how to do that. Because it’s not just like, you call someone on phone and start talking to them. It’s like we kind of say it’s that simple, but it’s not that simple. So, have you worked with folks or thought about this mixing or merging of these different methods? 

SB: Yeah, I was a weird student, I wasn’t a great computer science student, so I knew during my college career, I was never going to be a great programmer. Like, at best, I’d be a mediocre programmer, and not that happy being it.

JS: [inaudible 00:18:14] 

SB: Before I left, I tried to figure out what else can I do with this technical knowledge, but I wanted to make products. I studied human factor skills, which include how you do qualitative research, how you do interviews. So I learned some of that in college, and then during my career, I worked on project teams that had made investments in those things. And so, I don’t think it’s that hard to learn. I think the bias that economics and computer science and the sciences have is this faith in the rigor of what’s measurable, and hard data. 

JS: Yeah.

SB: But if you talk to a customer, it’s considered soft data somehow. But I’ve come to the opposite conclusion that it’s all the stuff is harder to measure that can often be the most important data or information you can get. And so, I think the book talks about some of these methods, and the most important one was if you’re making anything, you are obligated to watch someone try to use a prototype version of the thing you’re making, to watch. You don’t have to track their click-through data – hard data, you can get that, but you want to actually observe, because what you are doing by making something, and this includes presentations, you’re making somebody to have a psychological effect in the other person, cognitive psychological effect – they’re going to learn something, they’re going to behave differently. So how do you study that? You can observe it. So in the case of software and things like that, you make a prototype and you sit someone down who’s in your target demographic, and you observe, and you watch where did they struggle, where did they do well, what words did you use that they think means something else. All that’s observable, which in a way is the heart of science, that’s what Newton did, you observe, you have a premise, you do an experiment and you observe. And that curiosity to observe and to be patient and to realize that’s where your real information is going to come from is scientifically viable as a premise for how you’re going to get your best information about what you’re doing. But it involves other people. It involves what we pejoratively called soft skills which, when they’re really the important skills… 

JS: Important skills, yeah. 

SB: And the basic things you see product people do, you can call someone up, like you’re suggesting, and say, hey, what do you think of my product. And we know from our cognitive biases, most people are going to be polite and compliment you. They’re going to say, hey, your product’s great. You’re going to go, okay, my customer research [inaudible 00:20:41] and we’re joking. But a lot of CEOs and executives, that’s exactly what they do, that’s exactly why they believe they’re making good stuff. And we know as users of it, that their stuff is terrible, and we don’t understand why. That is a cognitive dissonance. So you’re asking a good question, I don’t think it’s that hard a problem to solve, provided we’re open minded about how these other kinds of data can be the more powerful kinds. 

JS: Yeah. So you mentioned presentations, I want to just pivot quickly into presentations. So is your, I guess, ideal model for people, you know, I always tell people, make sure you practice your presentation, rehearse your presentation, and don’t just click through and mumble it to yourself, like, actually stand up and flick through. But the, obviously, best approach is to practice your presentation in front of a group. But not everybody has that, especially now, we’re all at home, we don’t necessarily have that luxury. But is that your core part about getting a really good presentation is being able to practice it in front of people? 

SB: I think that there’s at least two parts to what a good presentation is in this context. And so, one is the performance and practicing will help you with your performance, how you feel comfortable, how your segues between different topics is going to work. But that’s all about performance. If you told me I could only magically give every presenter in the world one skill improvement, like, you couldn’t fix them all, but one, it’d really be about this last question you just asked, about better understanding of who you’re talking to. So many presentations seemed aimed at some imagined audience. That is not the audience. It’s either too complicated, it’s too guarded, it’s too pretentious, and that’s really just about misunderstanding who you’re talking to. And a lot of experts, you know a lot of experts in public policy and economics really smart, and you [inaudible 00:22:37] your presentation, and in two minutes, it’s like, what are they doing. And that to me is they really need to think, and there’s a chapter in Confessions of a Public Speaker about this, why are these people listening to you, what question do they have, what mistake are they making in their world with your expertise? If you give a talk about that, you’re guaranteed to help people, even if you mumble, even if you don’t have good jokes, even if your slides are ugly. If you give a presentation, here’s the five things, I know who you are, you filled out the survey, I know why you’re here, these five mistakes, I’m confident most of you are making, you can avoid them, I’m going to show you how. Boom! Like, everyone wants to hear that presentation, everybody. But how often do we get that presentation from experts? Like, rarely. That’s part of why I wrote the book, and it’s part of why I still coach people in speaking. I feel like the world could be so much better if our experts actually gave something closer to that in their approach to even the topics they talk about. 

JS: So I want to turn back to one thing and then turn back to the design book, because you just mentioned that, you know, find out what your audience wants or what they need, and I think a lot of people will say, well, I don’t know how to ask my audience that question before I develop or give the talk, and I don’t know how to issue a survey. So that’s a pretty practical question. But like, how do you think about solving that challenge? 

SB: Well, I think even if you don’t have time for the survey, you don’t know how to do it or you don’t have access to your audience, you can still go through that thought process of, well, let me step back from my ego, let me step back from what I want to talk about, let me step back from that and just ask that question: who’s going to click on the link to show up at this Zoom webinar? Who is going to do that, and what do they know? What problems are they facing? What is it that led them to click on that link as opposed to the 100 other things they could do with this hour? There has to be a problem they’re trying to solve, a situation they’re in at work, what is that reason? And even if you have to guess about that reason, you’re going to have a better approach to what you cover than falling back on, which is what we do, me and my ego – I want to talk about this. And also, sometimes you have the problem, the organizer of the event reached out to you or your boss, and says, hey Sally, can you give a presentation about tax accounting; and you go, all right, I’ll give a presentation about tax accounting. And no one bothers – who knows why your boss suggested it. It may have nothing to do with the audience at all. He wants to put on his report for the week that someone gave it. So you need to do a little bit of journalistic investigation as to what is this, who’s coming. And if you have to guess that, it’s better, it’s better than nothing. We fell back on our egos, and that’s – we know from watching those presentations, that’s really not what we want. 

JS: Yeah, I tell people now, a lot of presentation stuff is subjective, right? Like, if you put a design on your slides, and it could be you might like it, I might hate, it’s fine. But I have two things that I just absolutely hate, and one is when the presenter, and this happens in my field all the time, they have that big list of stuff, and they say, I know you can’t see this, but… And then they just continue. It’s like, could you care less about me as the audience members. It’s like, I know, you can’t do this, but I don’t care, I’m just going to keep talking. 

SB: Yeah, it’s a symptom.

JS: Yeah. 

SB: It’s also a symptom of how they practiced, and just like, it’s really about me, it’s about not that they’re intending – it’s like the exclusion habit from earlier on in this conversation, they’re not intending to bore you. But when you are in your own world about what the presentation is for, and what problem you’re going to solve, it’s going to tend to err on the side of being self-indulgent, it’s just for me. 

JS: Well, it also wraps back to your whole book on design, which is, understand how people are going to use whatever it is; and in this case, how are they going to use the presentation. And if you can’t present it well, if you can’t think about how they’re going to use it, it’s not going to be a good presentation. 

SB: No, I mean, it can be in a minor way, like, you can be entertaining [inaudible 00:26:34] 

JS: Right, yeah. 

SB: That’s not the worst situation. But the hope is, and that’s your intent probably as the speaker, that you can have this performance, it’s interesting. But when it’s over, people leave now being able to solve a problem or ask a better question or feel happier about their lives or be better parents or be better teacher or whatever.

JS: Yeah, whatever, right. 

SB: You’re hoping for some kind of movement outside of the experience of being in that talk. 

JS: Right. So I want to turn back here as we get closer in time. This whole book on design, I love the idea of design as a verb. So are there products, services, websites now in your mind that are like, what has the worst design, and what has the best design, like, can you pick out like a couple on each? 

SB: Yeah. So my favorite go-to answer for this is actually a strange one. It’s an axe, so it’s a Fiskars’ axe, I live in Seattle, I live a bit out in the woods so I split wood, it’s a great stress relief, I highly recommend it. But it’s an axe, and it’s a splitting wedge. It’s not that expensive, it’s maybe a $70 axe. But it is so well shaped, it fits well in my hands, it augments my strength, I never have to worry about its battery life. It never crashes. So it’s very simple obviously. It’s not Excel or Google sheets are something complex, but it reflects to me a very simple tool that’s excellent at what it does without any frustrations. And I think that’s an ideal for a lot of designs that we deal with in the world. Now, on the other end of the spectrum is just to look at the chaos, the mess of what our healthcare system went through over the last year. All the little pieces of the vaccine rollout, from the registration websites that would crash, from the logistics, the design of the logistics systems for getting vaccines to different places, to the communication around how information from the CDC was rolled out – there’s so many things in there that you could say, not in totality, but individually in terms of the proficiency of each of these things, were designed failures. These were things that should be designed better, they should be designed so we can depend on them in a crisis, and they weren’t. And so, you could pick any corner of that whole story over the last year and go, wait a second, what, who designed this, what were they trying to solve, what went wrong. And I think it’s, of all the things I could say, it’s probably the most important. 

JS: Yeah, and [inaudible 00:29:08] exclusionary too, right? I mean, we had the inequality in the vaccine rollout and who’s been affected by COVID. All these things draw back to that thing that we were talking about, about exclusion and inclusiveness.

SB: Absolutely, How Design Makes The World, these are all the things in the world, how are they designed – that was the thrust of the book is to have everybody have access to asking the ability to ask better questions about these things and understand why these things often go wrong, and then also what we can do about them. So I have an axe on one hand and my survivalist instincts, and then my [inaudible 00:29:37] about civilization and society.

JS: [inaudible 00:29:39] as a whole, yeah. Great, Scott, thanks so much for coming on the show. The book is How Design Makes The World, I’ll link to it in the show notes. It’s been great chatting with you. Thanks so much for coming on. 

SB: Thanks for having me. 

And thanks, everyone, for tuning into this week’s episode of the show. I hope you enjoyed that. I hope you learned a lot about design and this concept of design as a verb. I have linked to Scott’s books on the show notes, so do check them out. Again, the new book, How Design Makes The World, I think is a really great synopsis of how to think more broadly about design. So I hope you’re well, I hope you’re safe. So until next time, this has been the PolicyViz podcast. Thanks so much for listening. 

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