rushthatspeaks: (Default)
A book concerning the philosophy of industrial design.

Petroski's thesis is that the phrase 'form follows function' is an attractive alliterative buzzword but nothing more, and that in fact form follows failure mode-- that you can accurately explain how any design came into being by stating the problems with the previous iteration, and then looking at how the new version is trying to solve them. And of course designs keep changing because there is no such thing as a perfect balance between the things that would be necessary to solve every possible problem with the object. When faced with something that you would like to design to be easy to use, cheap to make, attractive, environmentally sound, endlessly reusable, and adjustable to anyone's needs, you are going to end up compromising somewhere, and then somebody else will make a version that compromises differently.

His means of proving his thesis is kind of enjoyable, in that he has exhaustively researched the history of a multiplicity of common household objects, such as the paperclip, the Post-It note, and the beverage can, and documents through each of the histories the way in which the current form of the object took shape by solving problems with the previous versions, and the way in which the very first version of each object filled a gap or solved a problem in day-to-day life.

However, honestly the problem with this book is that it is too sensible. In my opinion he had adequately proven his thesis by the end of chapter three, which meant that the rest of the book was taken up with a lot of restating the thesis over and over (which is extremely dull), history of more objects (not dull but not enough of it), and occasional vague stabs in the direction of elaboration on his original idea. In the bit on the history of silverware, for instance, he writes about the Victorian table services which had extremely, impressively specialized items in great quantity (pickle fork, chocolate muddler, tomato server, grape shears) and discusses the reasons that a vast number of items might be invented to meet a large number of perceived issues, and the reasons that later usage settles for a smaller number of items on the grounds that the problems aren't that major and the smaller set mostly takes care of them (though not perfectly). But silverware is the only thing where he traces this iterative path. Here, I did not think he'd adequately dealt with his elaboration (do all items go through this pattern of profligacy and shrinkage? which ones? why?) and would have welcomed more examples-- and the other elaborations on his basic topic have the same problem, because there aren't many of them compared to how often he restates his central thesis, but each only gets one example.

In short, I can prove Petroski's thesis by the way I think about his book: my problems with it would in fact lead me to giving it an entirely different shape, with which I am sure somebody else would have issues, and then they might want to have it in another shape entirely, and eventually we might arrive at a useful standard book that I don't have to go off in the middle of and desperately read some webcomics to keep myself from falling asleep. That book is not, in fact, this one, despite the fact that it is immaculately researched and as far as I can tell absolutely correct in every particular. Kind of amazing how that works, really. Right does not always equal riveting.

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rushthatspeaks: (Default)
A book concerning the philosophy of industrial design.

Petroski's thesis is that the phrase 'form follows function' is an attractive alliterative buzzword but nothing more, and that in fact form follows failure mode-- that you can accurately explain how any design came into being by stating the problems with the previous iteration, and then looking at how the new version is trying to solve them. And of course designs keep changing because there is no such thing as a perfect balance between the things that would be necessary to solve every possible problem with the object. When faced with something that you would like to design to be easy to use, cheap to make, attractive, environmentally sound, endlessly reusable, and adjustable to anyone's needs, you are going to end up compromising somewhere, and then somebody else will make a version that compromises differently.

His means of proving his thesis is kind of enjoyable, in that he has exhaustively researched the history of a multiplicity of common household objects, such as the paperclip, the Post-It note, and the beverage can, and documents through each of the histories the way in which the current form of the object took shape by solving problems with the previous versions, and the way in which the very first version of each object filled a gap or solved a problem in day-to-day life.

However, honestly the problem with this book is that it is too sensible. In my opinion he had adequately proven his thesis by the end of chapter three, which meant that the rest of the book was taken up with a lot of restating the thesis over and over (which is extremely dull), history of more objects (not dull but not enough of it), and occasional vague stabs in the direction of elaboration on his original idea. In the bit on the history of silverware, for instance, he writes about the Victorian table services which had extremely, impressively specialized items in great quantity (pickle fork, chocolate muddler, tomato server, grape shears) and discusses the reasons that a vast number of items might be invented to meet a large number of perceived issues, and the reasons that later usage settles for a smaller number of items on the grounds that the problems aren't that major and the smaller set mostly takes care of them (though not perfectly). But silverware is the only thing where he traces this iterative path. Here, I did not think he'd adequately dealt with his elaboration (do all items go through this pattern of profligacy and shrinkage? which ones? why?) and would have welcomed more examples-- and the other elaborations on his basic topic have the same problem, because there aren't many of them compared to how often he restates his central thesis, but each only gets one example.

In short, I can prove Petroski's thesis by the way I think about his book: my problems with it would in fact lead me to giving it an entirely different shape, with which I am sure somebody else would have issues, and then they might want to have it in another shape entirely, and eventually we might arrive at a useful standard book that I don't have to go off in the middle of and desperately read some webcomics to keep myself from falling asleep. That book is not, in fact, this one, despite the fact that it is immaculately researched and as far as I can tell absolutely correct in every particular. Kind of amazing how that works, really. Right does not always equal riveting.

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