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…

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