The Evolution of Useful Things, Henry Petroski

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The Evolution of Useful Things, Henry Petroski, Knopf, 1993 (c1992), ISBN 0-679-41226-3, $24.00

Petroski’s field is design, but his take on it is the history of design rather than the “science” of design as Donald Norman (of The Design of Everyday Things fame). Although their approach is different, the two men share some of the same insights into how and why objects are the way they were. But where Norman’s philosophy is that an object can be designed to be “better,” Petroski feels that an object will always be less than perfect. His theory, in part, is that because most objects have multiple purposes, the object can not perform any single task perfectly. This idea of the competition of purposes is best illustrated from the book by Petroski’s examination of eating utensils. The perfect utensil would be one that could cut and lift food to the mouth for eating. But knifes that cut have difficulty in lifting, forks are almost useless with a soup, and a spoon doesn’t cut well. By showing us the evolution of the flatware selection (which remains imperfect), Petroski gives weight to his theory.

But I’m not wholly convinced. Perhaps it’s because I read Norman first that I want to defend him. I want to believe that objects can be bettered–an interface can be easier to use, etc. The difference between Norman and Petroski is also one of style. Norman’s prose is almost light weight compared to the dense, multi-syllabic approach used by Petroski, and Norman wasn’t afraid to use terms and ideas that were not in lay usage. It could be that Norman’s short columnar structure breaks up the duty of trying to convey so much information that his is more readable prose. It could also be that Petroski likes the language of academia, even when it begins to obfuscate. From the design standpoint, both authors are worthwhile. It is important to see specific examples of real world solutions to design problems to come up with ideas for our own designs, be it a fork, a building, or software.

[Finished November 1995]

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