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: “We understand 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)