Henry Petroski has said, ‘As long as there are things to wonder about there are stories to be written about them. That makes me happy, because writing about things seems to be my thing.’ The author of 11 books (including his latest, Small Things Considered: Why There is no Perfect Design) a quick peek at his bibliography makes the truth of his ‘thing’ apparent. He has written on bridges (Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America), pencils, (The Pencil; A History of Design and Circumstance), paper clips and other such things (The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts–From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers–Came to be as They Are) and bookshelves (The Book on the Bookshelf). Henry Petroski has also written a memoir, Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer, as well as an overview of failure, one of his favorite subject topics (To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design). Henry Petroski is a professor at Duke University where he has been since 1980. He has won numerous awards and fellowships, lectures widely and writes an engineering column for American Scientist.
In Small Things Considered, Petroski, who Kirkus Reviews has called ‘America’s poet laureate of technology,’ turns his attention to the notion of perfection. Or, rather, the question of why perfection seems to elude even the most skillful and talented engineers, designers, and inventors. In the book’s 18 chapters, we are introduced to meditations on the pizza box tripod, drinking glasses, doorknobs, toothbrushes, stairs, and, well, you get the idea. Petroski’s point is to make clear the role of design as an everyday activity, and as the poet himself opines, ‘I write about the frustrations of making and using designed things—what it is about the nature of design that makes everything flawed. At the same time, I celebrate the remarkable ability of men and women to triumph over the world of imperfect things…’ As seen in the conversation below, it’s an endlessly fascinating and, for Henry Petroski, exciting calling.
Robert Birnbaum: Is your expertise in fractal engineering?
Henry Petroski: No, fracture mechanics: failure, and things that break.
RB: In your usage of the word ‘design,’ there’s a broader scope; it encompasses more activities than most people assign to it. For instance, in Small Things Considered, there is a piece about a woman, a writer, who at the end of her day working in front of her computer, finds her car has run out of gas, so she has to put together a meal out of what she has in the cupboard and the refrigerator. In that instance you talk about ‘designing’ the meal. Isn’t that a bit of a stretch?
HP: It could be. I think the mental process is effectively the same as [it is for] somebody who is engaged in formal design. I am trying to stretch the word, the use of the word, in this book. I am trying to make it clear to the people that might use ‘design’ in a more specialized way, that the thought processes, the mental processes, the creative processes have a lot in common with a lot of other activities, especially day-to-day, domestic activities.
RB: After reading Small Things Considered, I thought you were substituting the word ‘design’ for the word ‘thinking.’
HP: I don’t think I would agree with that. Thinking to me is much, much broader. We could think without a purpose, in the sense that we would just like to be totally creative and come up with new color patterns or put together words that have never been put together before. Design has more of a purpose, to me.
RB: There is no such thing as purposeless design?
HP: I don’t think so—not in the way I use it. But all words are subject to redefinition by whoever is using them. I come from engineering—design is a big part of engineering and there is a purpose, always, to it. Product designers also always have a purpose in what they are trying to do.
RB: You were talking about a very special kind of place like IDEO. You mentioned their toolbox concept. I remember seeing a program that followed their development of an invention over a week’s span—so I have some sense of what their approach is. In terms of the ‘toolbox,’ is it possible that some designers or creators in their studio might create something out of the things there without knowing what it was going to do?
HP: I doubt at IDEO that they would do that. They always have a purpose. They always have a function in mind.
RB: Right, it’s a business.
HP: Product design means the end product is a product.
RB: There is no basic research, the way in science one does experiments to see what happens?
HP: They might do that, but even that would be for a purpose. In other words, if they were trying to design a new telephone they might engage in some kind of playful research to come up with some new ideas. Ultimately, there is a purpose in mind. It’s not undirected research, like pure science or art for the sake of art.
RB: There was a shift in the ‘80s—maybe coincident with the notion of designer jeans—suddenly there was an awareness of design and designers. My take is that once there was an awareness of designers, they were quickly celebrified. Are people more caught up with the ‘who’ than the ‘what’?
HP: I think it is more true now than it was in the past. I don’t think it is a totally new phenomenon. William Morris was a famous designer a century ago or so. There always has been that kind of thing. Painters were designers of a sort; they were friends of the court. So I don’t think it’s a totally new concept. I do agree with you and don’t know exactly when—whether it was the ‘80s or before or after—people became more conscious of designer jeans, and logos on clothes and designer cachet became very important. Those designers clearly have a purpose. The purpose is to sell their product. In whatever way they can.
RB: Was it helpful [to the awareness of design] to whatever degree it’s important for people to be conscious of the role of design in their lives—extending mainstream consciousness [of designers]?
HP: Certainly, they contributed. But you know product design, industrial design, goes back to the 1930s or so with people like Raymond Loewy, the Eameses, and so forth, who were doing design, and it wasn’t so much that you bought a Loewy cigarette pack but a Lucky Strikes cigarette pack was designed by Loewy, and that was a very important product and trademark identification for the cigarette. What happened in the latter part of the 20th century is people wanted to directly assert or display their awareness of design in the way you describe.
RB: Two things I am trying to get at. One is that design became entangled in branding and the other is why it’s important that people be conscious or understand that design is an important part of our lives.
HP: You are going in a direction using the word ‘design’ that is different that I was hoping to—I am not saying that’s not design. As I said, design is a very broad term. The kind of design that I am talking about in this book is more basic. It’s more problem solving rather than marketing. Although very often things get intertwined. What I am interested in this book is understanding what it is that we do when we design something, when we solve a problem, when we produce a solution. Whether that solution is a product or a method or a system or a process.
I went up to this door and I pulled and pulled and it didn’t open. So I figured it was locked and I was not given the key. I went for assistance. And he came back and he just turned the knob and pushed it open.
RB: Would someone like Michael Graves—in which camp would Michael Graves fall? In the industrial design/problem solver or a marketer or brand-creator?
HP: He’s an interesting example. He has a foot in each camp.
RB: He designed for Alessi, and now he designs for Target.
HP: Obviously you could look at it that Target has given him a big problem to solve, ‘We want to sell a lot of products and we want to make a lot of money.’ And at the same time, his products are distinctive. Some people would say they are attractive. They don’t have the Michael Graves logo on them, typically.
RB: The packaging does.
HP: Packaging is separate from the product. I agree with that.
RB: The packaging uses the same signature blue that all the plastic parts of the products use.
HP: The color has become associated with him but it is different from the logo. It’s a different level, more subtle branding. It’s different from designer jeans, where the logo is the thing. You could take the exact same jeans, the exact same color, and if the logo were not there, they would not command the same price.
RB: In consumer electronics, there are just a few manufacturers of, for example, televisions, but there are many brands.
RB: Have you looked at [Graves’s] products and gone, ‘Wow, that’s great. That’s very clever, that’s an interesting solution’? You point out his work for the OXO company that makes Good Grips, the kitchen utensils.
HP: Oh, sure. I haven’t done a systematic study of products like that. I do admire a lot of those solutions, and they are advertised and marketed as clever solutions—not just as designer products.
Henry Petroski, photograph by Robert Birnbaum
RB: In Small Things Considered, in 16 or 17 chapters, you go from the pizza-packaging tripods to kitchen utensils, to lighting, to doorknobs, stairs, finally to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago—I knew the museum before all the rerouting that you describe. At any rate, this is a wide range of interest. What piques your interest? Is it the fabric of your life that anything is liable to excite your attention and focus?
HP: I think that’s a fair description, yes.
RB: You might be walking down the street and see an unusual garbage can—
HP: Yes, and that would be a candidate for writing about, without question.
RB: Most people don’t seem to pay attention to that stuff.
HP: There is a certain risk in doing this. Some people could say that what I write, so many of the things are trivial. Not worthy of a book—pencils and paper clips and so forth. So there was a certain risk involved. But I have long taken risks with what I write about. My first book was To Engineer is Human, which is all about failure, things breaking and collapsing. This was my way of explaining what engineering is—and ending up on an optimistic note, I believe. But it was a risk. And it was not clear how it would play with my colleagues and with the book-buying public. So I have always looked for different topics to write about. Partly because it’s fun and enjoyable, and I can also integrate my direct experiences. As you say, walking down the street seeing an interesting trash can can become a topic for a paragraph or a chapter or a book. It’s exciting to me.
HP: Yeah. [laughs]
RB: You were at a conference in Britain and you were shown to your quarters and you couldn’t open the door?
HP: I was giving a lecture at Cambridge. I am so used to approaching a house in this country and opening the door by pulling outward—in fact there are a lot of laws and regulations that doors must open outward for ease of exit during emergencies. I went up to this door and I pulled and pulled and it didn’t open. So I figured it was locked and I was not given the key. I went for assistance. And he came back and he just turned the knob and pushed it open. I felt like a fool. It showed me how we become so accustomed to the culture we live in and how things are done and I used that as one way of describing the cultural biases of design. We will find different solutions to the same problem depending on what our prejudices are, our backgrounds are.
RB: Yeah, OK. You lay out a few criteria for things that affect design. I can’t help but think that ultimately it is about cost, about the money. Manufacturers are not producing things to make the best and most beautiful things—perhaps they are even designing in a flaw so the product does not last forever.
HP: I would phrase it a little differently. They are making the best thing that they can sell. You could say they are making the best thing they can make that it’s understood that they can then sell. There are some things that command a lot of money because of their uniqueness, because of the fine craftsmanship and so forth. And people will pay for that but certainly you can’t sell in quantity something that is very, very expensive.
RB: Has the scale of manufacturing geometrically increased in the 20th century? Things were produced in the hundreds of thousands are now produced in the millions and multimillions?
HP: Yes and no. They have because population has increased. They were doing an awful lot of mass production in the 19th century. So I am not sure—when you say geometrically, if you are using that term precisely, I don’t know—an engineer would want to look at the data. But certainly there is the appearance that things are made in the greater quantities now. I don’t know that’s anything unique to our times. Manufacturers were geared up early in the 20th century to manufacture a lot more than they could. When the Depression hit there were a lot of manufacturing plants that couldn’t operate at full capacity because there simply wasn’t the market out there to buy the products—regardless whether they were fairly priced or not. In the wake of that there probably was a lot more caution among certain manufacturers. It’s not clear to me. I would want to see some data before I answered that question.
RB: I ask because it seems that while antique collecting has always been a sport or hobby, at some point things were being collected that had been manufactured recently. I wonder, how collectible can something be if it has been mass-produced?
HP: It depends on how many survived. The mere fact that something is mass manufactured sometimes makes it collectible. Sometimes there were millions of these things and they were so carelessly used and so little thought of precisely because of their multitude that to find an example in mint condition is really quite spectacular. And it takes its value from that in large part, I believe.
RB: Any thoughts on collecting? Do you engage in collecting?
HP: I don’t consider myself a collector. I have many collections that I assembled, usually in conjunction with writing a book. When I was writing about the pencil I collected pencils, wherever I could find them, and they were like my reference tools. I certainly don’t collect for—what’s the word I am looking for?
HP: I don’t expect that things I have collected will appreciate in price.
RB: Alex Beam (Boston Globe, Tuesday, December 17, 2002) wrote a piece about some particular pencil treasured by writers that sells for $20, if you can find it.
HP: This might be the Eberhard Faber Blackwing [#602]. It’s a very soft pencil that makes a very dark mark and because it’s soft it takes very little pressure to write with. I believe that’s the pencil that was stamped with ‘half the pressure twice the speed’ or something. You could see why that would appeal to writers. It had a very distinctive eraser and distinctive color—being black. Most common pencils are yellow. So for all those reasons, and writers think they are sort of artistic and they like to surround themselves with unusual and rare and remarkable things.
RB: This may be obvious but if people are willing to pay big bucks for it why isn’t it still being manufactured?
HP: Only a limited number of people will buy them for $20 and if you are not manufacturing a large quantity it might be costing you $19.95 to produce. That’s an exaggeration, of course. That’s the way the market pretty much goes. And then it’s a question of distribution. Who’s going to stock them? It’s not easy to market things. But once a brand name gets a cachet—the Dixon Ticonderoga pencil, the yellow pencil with the green and brass band around the eraser. That became such a cachet, that brand, there is a whole company now called Dixon Ticonderoga. And pencils are a very small part of what they do.
RB: In trying to recall that eureka moment when I actually understood something about design, it occurred to me that it came when I was using one of the early videocams, a Sony with a cumbersome recorder pack. One of the control switches, which must have been a 20-cent plastic piece, snapped. This cheap plastic part disabled the machine.
HP: Yes, a lot of early personal computers, old desktops—the first thing to break on many of them was the on/off switch. And just as you describe it. The fact of the matter is, a lot of people that used computers in the early days never turned them off because they knew that was the weak link in the system. It came to affect the way people used the computers. There is always a decision when you are making a product, whether it’s a video camera or a computer—there are so many parts. The total cost to manufacture is the sum of all those individual costs. If you can buy a 20-cent switch instead of 30-cent switch, that’s 10 cents you have saved. If you save a thousand 10 cents, you have $100, and that begins to be significant.
RB: If you have no sense of how many of these machines you are going to get back and in fact you make money getting them back for repair, then you have lost little or nothing. I expect some companies don’t care about recall.
HP: The theory of whether or not manufacturers actually build in flaws, build in obsolescence, I think that is a controversial topic and I think it is certainly a possibility. It’s conceivable. But given the free enterprise system that we live in, if a competing manufacturer could make something so much more reliable I would imagine all the businesses would go to in that direction. Word gets around quickly.
You can’t do everything and satisfy everybody all the time. It’s about as simple as that.
RB: Planned obsolescence was a buzzword about automobile manufacturing.
HP: That’s right.
RB: That’s mostly not about technical/functional improvements but styling. Consumers seemed to be trained to respond almost hypnotically to the new models. Now people love the old designs—
HP: That’s right, everything comes around.
RB: Why was the Checker, which was a dependable, hardy vehicle used for taxis—why is it no longer made?
HP: Maybe the mere fact that it was used for cabs had something to do with it.
RB: Yes, but they are not even made for cabs.
HP: That part has confused me. That I don’t understand. But of course, it’s possible that people who use cabs want something that looks more modern, too. They are subject to style. When I go to an airport and there is a long line of cabs and you are waiting in line, I wonder which one am I going to get. I feel kind of good when I get the newest one, the sleekest one.
RB: They are all so cramped.
HP: Well, the Checkers were not like that, of course. And the cabs in England, generally speaking, have much more room. Which makes sense; they are cabs, you are crawling in with all your luggage, and so forth. Yeah, it’s very confusing.
RB: My point here is that I don’t know that it’s about the best mousetrap. It seems more and more about effectively marketing a sensibility.
HP: I suspect that in the case of taxi cabs in larger cities—well, it really doesn’t matter whether they are large or not—whoever is putting up the capital to have a fleet of cabs would like to buy the cabs as cheaply as possible. Checkers being made better, being made more ample and so forth, didn’t fit that bill. I suspect that’s a big, big part of it. And cabs are dealing with a clientele that’s a captive audience, and in most cities you need a medallion to operate and it’s not considered a glamorous job and it’s a dangerous job.
RB: It’s a terrible job.
HP: Long hours, driving around, waiting at the airport, waiting for hours.
RB: And certainly traffic is another design horror—not been improved by anybody’s urban planning, anywhere. Is there one city that has benefited from urban planning? It seems an axiom of highway design that as soon as they are completed they are obsolete.
HP: The problem with highway design is that it takes so long for it to come to fruition that the assumptions upon which the design was made are five or more years older.
RB: That can’t be anticipated?
HP: Certainly you should. You project growth. But what seems to be part of the problem is that you could project that we need a bridge now in a major city to cross a river and today the traffic is projected to be twice as much and then the design has to be made to deal with that. Which do we design for: present load, or 10 years out, or 30 years out? Well, obviously the larger capacity you design for, the more expensive the bridge is going to be, because it has to have more lanes and it’s just going to be a more expensive project. Politicians are necessarily involved because these are public works projects. Voters aren’t going to say in 10 years, ‘Well, isn’t it nice that the mayor built a bridge that is going be good for another 20 years?’ They are going to vote on the basis of how much their taxes went up to pay for that bridge. So there is a window of opportunity, so to speak, that the mayor will see.
RB: Here in Boston we have the infamous Big Dig—
HP: Yes, that’s a famous one. There are examples of projects that don’t go over budget. They are rare and not talked about as much. But there is no law of physics or engineering or politics, for that matter, that says things have to go over budget. If we come to believe that’s a law, then we tend to allow for it more. And maybe not pursue correcting it so much as we should.
Henry Petroski, photograph by Robert Birnbaum
RB: If I take an overview of what you do, it’s suggesting that the perfection that is expected from the world of science and engineering is impossible to achieve when one is making things for human beings and when human beings are making things for human beings.
HP: Yes, that’s very well put. That really is a key idea in this book. The examples we have been talking about I think illustrate that. The example of the bridge in the city, for example. You can’t do everything and satisfy everybody all the time. It’s about as simple as that. Very often there are competing objectives, in the case of building a new bridge, for example. One of the objectives ideally would be to make it as long lasting as possible. But the other objective is to make it as inexpensive as possible. These are diametrically opposed. You can’t do both. There is no way you can do both. As a result you have to have some kind of compromise. You have to choose what you are going to do. And very often economics wins out. In the case of the Boston Big Dig, as I understand it, the economics have been thrown out the window. The cost of the of the project has gone $15 billion over—a lot of that $15 billion went to buying the silence of people to not protest the project, by mitigating noise or doing other things that cost a lot of money but kept people from complaining. [Actually, the Big Dig, originally priced at $2.6 billion, had a price tag of $14.6 billion as of December.—ed.]
RB: What remains to be seen is the plan for the land that has been reclaimed from depressing this roadway. How can they be building this and not have a plan resolved?
HP: Well, actually, that is another compromise that was negotiated at some point, probably to satisfy some competing factions. On a certain level the logical thing would be not to go ahead until everything is locked in and writ in stone. Clearly there are pressures, especially political pressures, to get things moving. So you get started and you say, ‘We’ll worry about that later. We can do this part of it without really worrying about that.’ But of course you leave it to abuse and corruption, as you indicate.
RB: Can you give an example of something besides the pizza tripod that achieved perfection of design, function, cost—a paradigm of great design?
HP: That’s an unfair question. [laughs] I could name a lot of things.
RB: The paper cup.
HP: Oh sure, the paper cup. It’s inexpensive. Works perfectly well, it’s sanitary. We don’t feel we are throwing away an awful lot if we put it in the trash and we are in circumstances where it wouldn’t be convenient to wash them. You could call it a perfect design, in a way. But for every plus in a design you can find a minus; in the case of the paper cup, there are ecological issues, environmental issues that have to be weighed. To some people those [issues] are almost unweighable. They are overwhelmingly the guiding principle of what good design should be. Paper cups also create trash—I mean that in a separate way from environmental concerns of having to waste paper.
RB: When I was in Central America, Nicaragua specifically—at a baseball game, they were using plastic baggies as containers for drinks—you’d bite the corner off to get at your drink.
HP: That might be part of their culture.
RB: It’s part of their culture that they are very poor.
HP: The South American culture is to drink out of what do they call them, wine sacks? They are soft, so this [the baggie] is closer to that than to thermos bottle or something like that. I am not sure that has to do with being poor but it might also be part of the culture to drink out of soft packages.
RB: And then there are the Cubans and their ability and resourcefulness in keeping 40- and 50-year-old cars running with less than bailing wire and duct tape.
HP: We all do this to a degree. Sometimes we are forced to, but other times—in science there is a saying, experimental scientists often talk about ‘sealing wax and string.’ The way to hold together a piece of apparatus is unique and you have just created it for that immediate purpose, bubble gum or whatever. You do what you have to do to get through and have it serve its purpose. You don’t want to waste resources on it—you can see that with how you package things. It makes sense to package drinks the way you have described. I don’t see it necessarily as an indication of a lower status.
RB: Bio-ethics or medical ethics is a recent discipline. Do designers have any have any formal training or field that focuses on ethical issues?
HP: There has been an increasing awareness. Designers are increasingly becoming formally grouped together as a profession, there are growing programs in universities and ethical issues are an inescapable extension of that kind of development—whether or not there are expectations of signing a code of ethics, I don’t know.
RB: Is there design certification—in the way there is engineer and architecture certification and licensing?
HP: I don’t think it is regulated by the state. In fact, most registration by states in this country really relates to issues of public safety and public health. Medical doctors have to be effectively registered and lawyers.
RB: You’ve written nine books, 10 books?
HP: I think this is my 11th, if I am not mistaken.
RB: How is it that you decide on your subject matter? This book seems to be more general and more an overview.
HP: Yeah, this is dealing with what the subtitle says, why there is no perfect design. It’s more an idea that I am exploring from many different perspectives, rather than a focused study of a particular object or class of objects. I am interested in the idea of design here—in that sense it [this book] is different. I am fortunate that I am in a position that I can pretty much write what I want.
RB: I’d say very fortunate.
HP: [laughs] I am also fortunate to have an editor and a publisher who are willing to publish just about anything I write. Which I guess ultimately is because there are readers out there willing to read just about anything I write.
RB: Would you have thought that people would be interested in books on bookshelves, pencils, paperclips—books, not articles?
HP: When I wrote the book on the bookshelf, I did, obviously, and my publisher did.
RB: You are writing these books because you are convinced that there are people interested.
HP: I am confident enough in my instincts by now—I have been writing, not only books but articles for going on 40 years now. So I think I have a sense of ‘what sells’—in quotes. And I won’t say that I am averse to selling books but I think that what drives me is not just that but also something that is going to maintain my own interest and be satisfying and also have ideas. I like to think that my books have ideas in them that are worth exploring and that people will find interesting enough to talk about. Like we are talking now.
RB: So what’s next?
HP: I have a sense. I have several senses. I have two or three books that I have thought through. I know they are books; whether or not they would be successful books, I’m not sure yet. And that’s one thing I have to resolve in my mind. I typically don’t talk about what I am working on. The simple fact is that to me it’s a totally internal thing. And talking about it—it’s almost a superstition. Let’s talk about this book in retrospect. While I was working on this book that ended up being called Small Things Considered, its working title was Nothing’s Perfect. And that to me encapsulated what the book was about. That is what the book ended up being about. Exactly what the chapters were going to be, exactly what order they would appear in, exactly what case studies elaborate on—these things were not fully formed in my mind before I actually sat down to write. To me, the excitement of doing it is the discovery during the process of writing. I like to think that keeps things fresh. I don’t write from rigid outlines. When I have tried to do that—when I have had to do that to obtain a contract—I find that the book deviated from that to a large extent. Fortunately some publishers and editors are more forgiving.
RB: Do I have it correct—that you intended to move this book from small objects to very large objects?
HP: That’s deliberate. I don’t think a book is just chapters that repeat. There has to be some development. In this case, I wanted to end up in some positive—I didn’t want it to be a downer, especially with the original title. How to start a book like this is as difficult as how to end it Beginnings and endings are very, very difficult because they are such obvious points of focus for the reader. I like to think unless a book starts strong the reader might not get into the second chapter. And at the same time I like the first chapter to be fair to the reader and alert them to what’s coming. So there is a certain amount of prefacing.
RB: Are you using a different muscle when you write?
HP: Good question—if I were forced to give a one-word answer I’d say, ‘No.’ Even though that is counterintuitive to most people. As I try to describe a little bit in the last few pages of this book, engineering is very much a creative activity. Only one of my books is out of print and I wish it weren’t—Beyond Engineering, a collection of essays that I wrote early on. The opening essay in that book compares writing to bridge building, and I try to emphasize the sameness of these activities. They really are, in my mind, having engaged in both of them. Neither an engineer nor a writer can go anywhere unless there is some concept, even if it is as simple as a title. Same with a bridge—there has to be something in the mind’s eye that says, ‘This is what it’s going to look like.’ Then you can start doing some calculations and some science.
RB: There is a bias that engineering and higher math are very rigid and uncreative—that there is no room to move.
HP: It’s a misconception. It really is. Parts of creativity in the arts are also kind of—I would go so far as to say boring and tedious.
Writing a book, if you stop to think how many times your fingers have to depress the keys on the word processor and then how many times you have to proofread.
RB: It’s drudgework.
HP: It is. It’s terrible drudgework.
RB: The physicality of sitting in one place—
HP: Yeah—yeah, it’s not good for your health either [laughs] Everything we do has a certain amount of drudge to it. That doesn’t make it either good or bad. It’s part of producing something as a human being.
RB: The bittersweet part of life. Well, thank you very much.
HP: Oh, you are welcome. I enjoyed it. Thank you.