Why has the durable paper shopping bag been largely replaced by its flimsy plastic counterpart? What circuitous chain of improvements led to such innovations as the automobile cup holder and the swiveling vegetable peeler? With the same relentless curiosity and lucid, witty prose he brought to his earlier books, Henry Petroski looks at some of our most familiar objects and reveals that they are, in fact, works in progress. For there can never be an end to the quest for the perfect design.
To illustrate his thesis, Petroski tells the story of the paper drinking cup, which owes its popularity to the discovery that water glasses could carry germs. He pays tribute to the little plastic tripod that keeps pizza from sticking to the box and analyzes the numerical layouts of telephones and handheld calculators. Small Things Considered is Petroski at his most trenchant and provocative, casting his eye not only on everyday artifacts but on their users as well.
"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.