Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design

Petroski, Henry

In this 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. Editorial Reviews Publishers Weekly "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. Library Journal An engineer extraordinaire on the creative effort of designing the simplest things, from paperclips to paper cups. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information. Kirkus Reviews Forays taken with comfortable ease into the process of design--and the art of compromise--by someone who likes his engineering served on a bed of multiple variables. There are, Petroski (Paperboy, 2002, etc.) explains, a host of considerations in any design work, from aesthetics to effectiveness, transparency of use to manufacturing costs. It is always a matter of balance and compromise, objectives competing with one another to determine the most important at a given moment. An invention may have all the required or desirable elements and qualities, yet perfection is elusive: "The concept of comparative improvement is imbedded in the paradigm for invention, the better mousetrap." As consumers, we make design decisions every day and "understand viscerally that design must always conform to constraint, must always require choice, and thus must always involve compromise." We may embrace the minor flaws and idiosyncrasies of some designs--having to put a thumb on the lid of a Brita pitcher, for instance--because we admire other aspects of the design, though an E-Z Pass or Metrocard that doesn't perform will make us abandon the product. With storytelling talent, as ever, Petroski walks readers through the evolution of duct tape and supermarket layout, vegetable peelers and automobile headlights, paper cups and cup dispensers and cup holders, ergonomically sound and child-pleasing toothbrush handles, and rotary telephones, the brainstorm of an undertaker who thought an operator was being bribed to direct calls to a competitor. As pleasing and effective as Petroski is, he has a few design flaws of his own, including a tendency to go on, clarifying the clarifications: "Weunderstand that we cannot watch two programs at once, unless we have more than one set or our set has a picture-in-a-picture feature." "We live in a world of imperfect things, just as we do in a world of imperfect fellow human beings." But who'd have thought the genesis of those imperfect things would be so fascinating? (22 photographs) From the Publisher " A masterful expression of how design affects the civilized world." --Los Angeles Times Book Review "Delightful. . . . A keen observer to the made world and how people live in it. . . . Small Things Considered provides all sorts of penetrating and broadly interesting insights into . . . the process of design." --Scientific American "He peers closely at some of the most common household objects and explains how they work-or don't. . . . Whether he's tracing the evolution of the Oral-B toothbrush or explaining why the fastest tollbooth is always the one on the right, Petroski clearly knows the designs of our times." --Michael Dirda, INC. Magazine "Henry Petroski has become the main emissary from the world of engineering to the rest of us. . . . He brings clarity and good sense to his subject, making the enigmatic world of things a little less mystifying." --Austin American-Statesman "Fascinating. . . . [Petroski] has combined a writer's grace with an engineer's insight to give us an engaging series of essays. . . . You'll never again take a potato peeler for granted." --St. Louis Post-Dispatch "Craftily, [Petroski] combines an engineer's insight and admiration for the way things are designed with a layman's puzzlement." --Boston Herald "An engaging read." --The Denver Post "Fascinating. . . . Interesting and insightful observations. . . . Petroski will make any reader . . . more aware of the processes that lead to the variety of things that are all around us and how they came to be the way they are." --Science Books & Film "[Petroski] shares with Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and Stephen Hawking a talent for taking his passion and making it accessible to those who lack his scientific background while being sufficiently observant and meticulous to keep it interesting for those who share it." --Civil Engineering

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