Henry Petroski, "America's poet laureate of technology" (Kirkus Reviews)-author of The Pencil and The Evolution of Useful Things-now gives us an entertaining and perceptive study of design in everyday life, while revealing the checkered pasts, and some possible futures, of familiar objects.
Chairs, lightbulbs, cup holders, toothbrushes, doorknobs, light switches, potato peelers, paper bags, duct tape-as ubiquitous as these may be, they are still works in progress. The design of such ordinary items demonstrates the simple brilliance of human creativity, while at the same time showing the frustration of getting anything completely right. Nothing's perfect, and so the quest for perfection continues to continue.
In this engrossing and insightful book, Petroski takes us inside the creative process by which common objects are invented and improved upon in pursuit of the ever-elusive perfect thing. He shows us, for instance, how the disposable paper cup became a popular commercial success only after the public learned that shared water glasses could carry germs; how it took years, an abundance of business panache, and many discarded models-from cups that opened like paper bags to those that came with pleats-for the inventor of the paper cup to arrive at what we now use and toss away without so much as a thought for its fascinating history.
A trenchant, surprising evaluation of why some designs succeed and others don't, Small Things Considered is also an utterly delightful study of human nature.
Henry Petroski, the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, lives in Durham, North Carolina. He is the author of ten previous books.
"Design can be easy and difficult at the same time, but in the end, it is mostly difficult." So writes engineering professor Petroski (The Evolution of Useful Things, etc.) in his latest effort, a wide-ranging exploration of the history and design of the everyday technologies like supermarket aisles and telephone keypads that are practically invisible in their ubiquity. Petroski emphasizes that these "small things" aren't in fact the results of a smooth and simple design process, but are rather the products of a constellation of oft-conflicting constraints, frequently with unintended consequences (consider the recently redesigned, fat-handled toothbrushes that, while more ergonomic, have rendered millions of traditional toothbrush holders useless). The book meanders through this world of design, less concerned with making a direct argument than with reveling in the complexities of the ever-changing design of everyday things, such as Brita water pitchers and freeway tollbooths. The writing is engaging and approachable, and reading the book feels like sitting down for a long chat with that favorite uncle who seems to know a bit about everything and never hesitates to throw in his own take on matters. Petroski's histories of, among others, paper cups and duct tape are fascinating, and this book leaves us a little more conscious of the never-ending design process of our modern world. 22 photos. (Sept. 22) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 13, 2004
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Excerpt from Small Things Considered by Henry Petroski
The Nature of Design
An architect, a psychologist, and an engineer were appearing together on a radio talk show. This may sound like the setup line for one of those jokes about professionals, but the situation was real and the subject of the National Public Radio program, Talk of the Nation-Science Friday, was not comedy but the design of everyday objects. The hour's discussion showed that the participants, each in his own way, took design very seriously indeed. Their characteristic mind-sets were evident from the beginning, and by the end of the hour they had conveyed a great deal about how differently their professions approach the subject under discussion.
Ira Flatow, the show's host, asked each guest to comment on what constituted good and bad design-giving examples-and the talk ranged widely from teakettles to computers. As if to signal that this was not too heavy a subject for a Friday afternoon, the architect stressed at the outset that the design of anything can be whimsical and a source of great enjoyment. He recalled getting a letter from a French poet who said that he smiled every time the little red bird on his Michael Graves-designed teakettle whistled to announce that the water had come to a boil. The psychologist agreed that the architect's teakettle was a thing of beauty and a joy to use, and he confessed that he even displayed one in his kitchen window for people to admire. The engineer, having had no personal experience with the whimsical teakettle, said nothing about it, but he thought to himself of the many times he had dripped boiling water from the very attractive but poorly designed kettle that sat on his stove at home.
Throughout the show, the architect spoke often of aesthetics and about how much of design should be driven by the appearance of things, if for no other reason than to distinguish from one another in the marketplace objects that serve the same purpose. The psychologist, while acknowledging that he liked attractive designs, stressed how important it was that an object communicate how it was to be used. Among the examples of poor "user interfaces" he cited in the course of the show were feature-laden telephone systems and shower controls that gave no hint of how they were operated.
The engineer did not disagree with the architect and psychologist. He, too, expressed a wish that the design of objects be attractive enough that they could be displayed in a place of honor and their use be transparent. However, he pointed out, the primary purpose of most things is to perform a function, and because the goals of aesthetics, user friendliness, and doing a job effectively can be in conflict, economics often becomes the referee. The design process is characterized mostly by tensions between competing objectives that are resolved by compromises, usually driven by the realities of manufacturing cost and sales price. After some discussion, which led to a collegial agreement that good design must take into account, within the context of cost, all manner of considerations, the host invited the listening audience to call in and describe their favorite examples of good design and also relate their greatest "design nightmares."
Of the many things named by the host, the guests, and call-in listeners over the course of the show, there were about equal numbers of what were considered good and bad designs. Among the "good" designs were musical instruments, the Chrysler Building, and the paper clip. "Bad" designs included car-radio buttons, electronic remote controls, and water pitchers. But the dividing line between good and bad design was not drawn sharply, and opinion was not always unanimous. One caller offered the modern automobile steering wheel as an example of good design: By having so many controls at their fingertips, drivers do not have to take their eyes off the road to fiddle with knobs and buttons, thus making driving safer