How I Arrived at the Title of My Book “Figure It Out”

Coming up with book titles is hard. What follows is a private letter I wrote in March of 2019 for an audience of exactly three people: My publisher (Lou Rosenfeld), editor (Marta Justak), and co-author (Karl Fast). Other than changing the title of this post, and adding a postscript at the end, these words are unchanged, as written for this private audience. I’m sharing now—publicly—as I believe it’s a fun peek into: (a) a slice of the book writing process, and (b) the thought process that went into coming up with the title of my new book Figure It Out. Enjoy!

TLDR: I’m recommending this as the book title:

Figure It Out: How We Get from Information to Understanding

So…

I originally pitched this book as “Design for Understanding”. This seemed to be a really strong, simple, direct title.

Oh my! Remember this from way back when?

The problem is, this title hasn’t tested well.

Countless times over the last seven years, at conferences and in conversations, I’ve pitched and described my book to different folks. Here’s what I’ve found:

Person: Oh, what’s your book about?

Me: How we ‘Design for Understanding’.

Person: That sounds… interesting.

(deafening silence, before the topic changes)

It’s a conversation stopper. Some people respond with “that sounds like an ‘important’ topic”, but that’s it. It’s a very weighty conversation stopper. Reading between the lines, this I what I hear: ‘It sounds like you’re writing about a very important topic that is also not interesting or relevant to me’.

Moreover, it’s not really accurate.

It was Christina Wodtke who (after reading some chapters, sometime around 2014) remarked that this book isn’t about ‘Design for Understanding, but rather the ‘The Architecture of Understanding.

Boom. I loved the weight of that proposed title. And, given the book had shifted away from a ‘how to…’ text and has become a ‘how to think about…’ text, targeting a broader audience, ‘architecture’ did seem a much better a word than ‘design’.

At this point, I’m picturing images of such timeless classics as Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language or Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things. Generic titles that worked, as these books have becomes revered tomes by noted experts. While I prefer this “Architecture of…” title, this kind of grandiose thinking also does nothing but stress me out and add unnecessary pressure on a book that’s already taking too long to write!

Predictably, this tweak to the title suffered the same fate as ‘Design for Understanding’. Sounds like a heavy, weighty tome; all potential interest in the topic is diffused.

Throughout all this, there’s also a phrase I’m consistently testing: “From information to understanding”.

“The book is about how we get from information to understanding”

THIS, lands.

And lands well.

I suspected it would. Why? From various talks, whenever I flash up Karl’s quote:

“Information is cheap. Understanding is expensive.”
—Karl Fast

…people screenshot and tweet this. It resonates. Something about this idea of ‘information’ juxtaposed with ‘understanding’ does something.

It’s also been incredibly simply to illustrate with a jigsaw puzzle analogy, as I did in my TEDxUtrecht talk:

But, back to the simple phrase ‘From Information to Understanding’. Here’s what I’ve observed:

  1. Everyone identifies with the word “information”. Whether it’s something about big data or concerns about privacy or something that’s confusing, information as a concept is something that resonates. It’s a generative conversation opener.
  2. It proposes that, ‘hey, what if there’s something more than or beyond information?’
  3. The phrasing “From… to…” suggests there is a how to be explored.

Needless to say, this phrase has been a conversation opener, even if the direction varies. People lean forward at this phrase.

I really like this concept, that “understanding” is finding a pattern in the random jumble of things.

So, “From Information to Understanding” is great as a phrase, but fairly generic as a memorable book title.

At this point, it’s worth inserting some of my considerations for a good book title:

  1. Does it pique interest?
    ‘Seductive Interaction Design’
    was a pretty catchy title. Could I luck into something this good a second time around?
  2. Does it accurately represent the book?
    See above, on distinction between Design and Architecture, as an example.
  3. Is it memorable or interesting?
    This is key, for me. I want people to be able to recall the specific title, when recommending it to someone. I’ve read some great books with such generic titles that I couldn’t recall anything meaningful to relay.
  4. Will it be easily findable through keyword searches?
    Information’ and ‘Understanding’ are pretty generic keywords, and unlikely to break to the top 10, even with ‘book’ added.
  5. What does it promise? What do get by reading this book?
    I recall around Dec 2015 listening to a webinar with Ray Bard, a publisher, who commented that all the best sellers are selling hope. ‘Buy this book and this thing will happen’. While my book fits more of a ‘Big idea’ and/or ‘How to’ frame, I did start running title ideas through this concept of hope, or even just a simple promise of some sort. What do you get if you buy my book?

I’m sure there are more considerations, but this is what’s top of mind.

Anyway, at this point I felt pretty good about “From Information to Understanding” (or some variant of this phrase) as a subtitle, but felt the need for something more catchy, distinct, and memorable for the title.

I’ll blitz through some of the various names and name combinations I’ve explored over the past several years:

  • See What I Mean (I was the one who ‘gave’ this title to Kevin Cheng ;-))
  • Show Me: The Architecture of Understanding
  • More than Information: The Architecture of Understanding
  • Finding Patterns: The Architecture of Understanding
  • Finding Patterns: Information, Design, and The Architecture of Understanding
  • Finding Patterns: How to Design for Understanding When All We’re Given is Information.
  • Assembly Required: How We Get from Information to Understanding
  • To Boldly Know: How We Get from Information to Understanding
  • A Pattern Game: How We Get from Information to Understanding
Yeah, yeah, I know I shouldn’t be doing this.

We could go on.

There were some names that I thought would be it:

  • “Assembly Required” seemed so on point. And distinct. In fact, this became the title of my WIAD2018 talk. But, I could never recall it weeks later. And it didn’t seem like it would pass the keyword search test.
  • “A Pattern Game” is both interesting and so incredibly on point, especially when we think about the theme of connections, whether that’s between neurons, ideas, or people. I even purchased the domain name apatterngame.com. Alas, it suffered a few weeks later from recall — I couldn’t easily remember ‘that awesome name’ I had come up with!

Fast forward to late 2018.

I wanted a simple, memorable phrase, like what I had come up for Kevin’s book (See What I Mean). Two of the struggles I’ve faced though are:

  1. This book is only partially about the visual display of information (Show Me and See What I Mean suggest a book devoted to the visual display of information).
  2. Who facilitates understanding? Is it an individual? A group? Is it an organization on behalf of their customers? As the book is for any of these use cases, the title needs to avoid any sort of suggestion that it’s for an individual to work out, or for an agency to do for others.

This eliminated many phrases that came to mind, though one has stuck:

Figure it out.

It’s short and simple. None of these three words is misspelled or has multiple spellings (‘sense’ ‘since’ ‘cents’). It’s a command. A verb. And to be honest, one I worried was a bit aggressive; however, searching for uses of this phrase revealed all variety of expressions. Also, ‘figure it out’ applies to groups as well as individuals. And who is figuring it out? It could be:

  • We’re going to figure it out
  • You (singular) should figure it out
  • You (plural) figure it out

Also, I like the use of the word ‘figure’. It has suggestions of ‘figures’ as in the illustrations in a book used to clarify an idea, and… it also means ‘to deduce or think about a thing’.

Most noteworthy though, this phrase has never left my head. In the months since I arrived at it, and applied the same cursory attention to memory recall, it has stuck. It’s easy to recall.

And when combined in a keyword phrase, you get something like:

‘figure it out understanding book’

or

‘figure it out book’

Both of which I suspect this would have good search results.

So… Here’s my book title recommendation:

Figure It Out: How We Get from Information to Understanding

What d’ya think?

Just prototyping. Trying to get a feel for the title — nothing more!

UPDATE June 2020: Fast forward to present, and the book is now out, with a nearly identical title to what I proposed: Figure It Out: Getting from Information to Understanding. For the sub-title, we ended up with a more succinct ‘Getting from…’ as opposed to ‘How we/you get from…’ . And we got this lovely cover from The Heads of State:

You can order your copy directly from the publisher or Amazon.com. :-)

Speaker, educator, and design leader. On a mission to make learning the hard stuff fun, by creating ‘things to think with’ and ‘spaces’ for generative play.