Small Things Considered, by Henry Petroski

Posted: January 1, 2004 at 2:57 am in nonfiction

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Subtitled Why There Is No Perfect Design, this book by an engineer describes the compromises necessary in any design. This was recommended as a book-of-the-month by Joel Spolsky – scroll down for his snippet on this book. I was intrigued enough to toss it into my latest Amazon order, and read it while at my parents over Christmas.

Petroski does a good job of looking at the simplest things and the design inherent in them. In one chapter, he discusses the design of the drinking glass sitting on his desk as he’s writing. How wide should it be for people to get a comfortable grip on it? It has to be a compromise, because people have differently sized hands – do you design for the average? How tall should it be? Short and squat means it’s less likely to tip over and spill its contents all over your desk. But taller means more capacity, which means fewer refills. How thick should the glass be? On the sides? On the bottom? More glass on the bottom means it’s more stable, but it also weighs more, so it’s harder to pick up. He mentions the convenience of the glass being round, so you can pick it up without looking at it, because any alignment is equally suitable for drinking, but square glasses would pack better into cabinets. All of these decisions had to be made by somebody while making this glass. And there’s no perfect design. It depends on the situation; if you’re thirsty, you want a bigger glass, if you’re going to be working with a lot of papers, you want a short, more stable glass. If you’re a big person, you may want bigger glasses to fit your hands better. All of design is contextual. All design choices are compromises when designing for the use of more than one person, or even the same person at different times (clothes that are appropriate for lounging around the house in are not appropriate for going to the symphony in, even if they fit equally well).

I thought this discussion was interesting, but the book never really changed in tone. Each chapter was basically a repeat of the same thesis and the same detailed examination of an object, starting with the drinking glass, but later touching on one’s house, lighting from MagLites to light bulbs, cars, supermarkets, duct tape, toothbrushes, etc. Some of the details were interesting, explaining why certain design choices were made in the development of some of these products, but the sameness of the discussion was evident by the end. I’m not sure what I would have done differently as the author, but by the end, I was starting to skim, and even though it was a relatively quick read, I was glad it was over when I finished. I can’t say I recommend it unless you’re interested in the specific design choices made for some of these products; the previous paragraph basically gives you the entire thesis of the book, and there’s no reason to read any more than that.

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