Category Archives: design

The Evolution of Useful Things

by Henry Petroski

What really stands out for me in this book is Petroski’s assertion that form does not follow function. In the author’s words, “Here I have focused not on the physical failings of any single thing but, rather, on the implications of failure–whether physical, functional, cultural, or psychological–for form generally. This extended essay, which may be read as a refutation of the design dictum that ‘form follows function,’ has led to considerations that go beyond things themselves to the roots of the often ineffable creative processes of invention and design.”


“We can find fault with any common object if we look hard enough at it. But that is not Pye’s goal, nor is it this book’s intention. Rather, the objective here is to celebrate the clever and everyday things of an imperfect world as triumphs in the face of design adversity. We will come to understand why we can speak of ‘perfected’ designs in such an environment, and why one thing follows from another through successive changes, all intended to be for the better.”

How to define design? “The distinctly human activities of invention, design, and development are themselves not so distinct as the separate words for them imply, and in their use of failure these endeavors do in fact form a continuum of activity that determines the shapes and forms of every made object.”

An example of something which will not, for the present discussion, qualify as design:

“To design or ‘redesign’ a chess set may involve some minor considerations of weight and balance in the pieces, but more often than not it is taken as a problem in aesthetics. And in the name of aesthetics many a chess set has been made more modern- or abstract-looking, if not merely different-looking, at the expense of chess players’ ability to tell the queen from the king or the knight from the bishop. Such design games are of little concern in this book.”

Fair enough. And he shares with me a love of a beautiful bookshelf:

“The typical book is now ‘perfect-bound,’ which means that its sheets are folded in signatures as before but not sewn. Rather, the signatures are gathered and stacked, and trimmed all around to a boxlike shape. Containing no thread in its folds, the stack of paper does not bulge at the spine, and so does not have to be rounded. Instead, it is ground to a rough finish, the better to receive an adhesive similar to the stuff that holds pads of paper together. This procedure was first used in binding cheap paperbacks and has now been almost universally adapted to even the most expensive hardcovers, to the dismay of many an author, reader and bibliophile. In spite of its name, perfect binding has great failings, not the least of which is that a book so bound is often badly misshapen after a single reading. The modern bookshelf is thus characterized not by a neat ripple of round-ended volumes but by a jagged surface of creased spines. When seen on end, once-read perfect-bound books are sadly skewed reminders of how form follows fortune. Even if this may be to the myopic delight of manufacturers, it can certainly be to the dismay of those who have a sense of form.”

There was some really fascinating discussion of eating utensils, and how we in the west came to eat with a fork and knife… rather than with just a knife and our fingers. But then how many tines are necessary on a fork? And does one eat ice cream with a fork? And what is a fish knife? Why won’t a regular dinner knife do when eating a fish? How much of this is fashion versus truly functional design? Petroski will sort it out for you. But again, one of the points he means to make is that the knife and fork are not the only solution to moving food to our mouths that humans have evolved. In the east, there are chopsticks, a very different solution indeed. Both forms provide the functionality needed for eating.

However, our opinions might diverge when it comes to the intersection of designed objects (technologies) and evolution:

“From a certain point of view, prehistoric life was all well and good enough for prehistoric man and woman. Indeed, the artifacts and technology then in existence played a large part in defining the nature of the era. By definition, prehistoric tools and ways were (perfectly?) adequate for getting along in the prehistoric world. The argument that technological advances were necessary to advance civilization is at best a tautology and at worst akin to the myth that necessity is the mother of invention.”

Really? Where is the horse and where is the cart, here? I can state with a certain degree of assurance that the horse came first. Then some human designer had a bright idea…

Category: design | Tags: , ,

Pure Design

by Mario Garcia

The subtitle of this book is “79 Simple Solutions for Magazines, Books, Newspapers, and Websites.” I haven’t done much designing for print in the past several years, and Garcia doesn’t actually have much to say about website design. He is a print guy through and through, famous for his redesign work with such publications as The Wall Street Journal.

Still, it’s always interesting to read books like this, for the underlying philosophy of the designer, which can’t help but reveal itself. It also serves to reaffirm many design principles which of course overlap across media. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of the basics. And in the basics is really where Garcia’s “pure design” lies:

“My idea of pure design is inspired by minimalism. And, although this movement found its truest manifestations in sculpture–composed of modular units, aluminum and steel cubes, and so on–one can relate to how artists of this group created, for example, horizontal sculptures made of identical units. The overall impression, however, is what contributed to ‘telling the story.’

Likewise, pure design is a series of repetitions: how story structures are created, how a grid is adhered to, with the same number of columns and equal repetitions of white space, for example, with a typographic cluster that is identical, and, if possible, based on one family of type. All of this is ultimately highlighted by a color palette, again made up of similarly hued colors, and only a few, which are constantly repeated.”

A sampling of chapter sections will give a good indication of Garcia’s 79 solutions: Selecting Type, Ragged right vs. justified, Headlines: bigger is better, Visual parallelism, White space… good stuff.

Category: design, philosophy | Tags:

Designers are Wankers

by Lee McCormack

I don’t know about that. But the author of this book is certainly a wanker. He’s aiming pretty low with this stuff, although to be fair, the sleeve clearly states that this is a book for those entering the profession… basically just-graduated newbies. McCormack wants to teach them the practical aspects of the design profession, the business side of things, or at least, how to deal with those on the business side.

But first of all, maybe he could define the design profession. Because he never explicitly states it, but gradually we become aware that he is talking about industrial/product design. Sure, there are aspects that any designer – graphic, web, magazine, etc. – can benefit from. But only if they don’t know much at all! Here’s McCormack’s view of his target audience:

“Being a designer, or being creative in any way, seems to make this transition [from education to the workforce] even harder than usual. You are at a disadvantage when it comes to relating to the needs of industry because studying creativity actively takes you away from it. You are emotional, insider, idealistic, ambitious, intelligent and thoughtful, but have little grasp of what makes industry tick. You are pumped up with ideas that can change the world, holding the view that no-one else seems to understand where it’s all going or how good it could be. Creative personalities like designers tend to be almost child-like…when making the leap into the professional design business, the designer can find it a struggle to relate to more mundane, financial or business aspects.”

McCormack’s first advice is to adapt the business mindset:

“It is important to apply the business mindset to design. The business mind then becomes a yardstick for measuring the design. That is not to say that it is the only yardstick by which a design can be measured–there are, of course, others, such as its purpose, its relevance, its relationship with other design, its commercial success, the ability to manufacture and distribute the product, and whether people are receptive to it.”

Er, okay…

“It’s important to be able to understand the business mind. The business mind is always looking at the broader picture. The business mind has to account for all the factors surrounding an idea. The business mind has a measure of detachment from its work. It gives a project a sense of purpose and realism and often applies a logic that well-read people who aren’t designers don’t always consider.”

Am I really reading this? The assumed reader is a college graduate, right?!

One of his key pieces of advice for budding designers is to develop their own style:

“Try to find out what your own style is. Look through your work and notice the common threads that run through it. This may just be he starting point of something you can develop. When you find your vibe, look at it, explore it, play with it; it will become your asset. It will become the unique offering that separates you from everybody lee, and it will be something you can rely on in the future. You shouldn’t feel stuck to it, however; let it evolve and develop naturally using your experiences of life and how you relate to the world around you. Ask yourself these questions:

What are you interested in?
What do you believe in?
What are you searching for?
What are you trying to create?
What is the point?”

Maybe it’s just my jaded and bitter mature self that finds all of this very obvious and trite. Perhaps if I’d read the book when I was just starting out, it would’ve made me a better designer, or a better freelancer at the very least. But I’ve learned the hard way? And if I recognize all of this as true and obvious, then, well, so it is. And the younger designers may benefit. And I’m a wanker.

Category: design, training | Tags: , ,