Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Design of Everyday Things

Let it be known that I am a very gentle book critic. I'm humbled by the wealth of information out there. I expect that I still have a lot to learn from a lot of people on a lot of subjects, and if I can pick up a book and learn even just a few new things, I'm satisfied. If the book is engaging, if I learn many new things, well, that's all bonus. You can see a list of books I've liked on the right-hand side of my blog - most of which I've given positive reviews at some point on this blog.

As gentle of a critic as I generally am, I must say that The Design of Everyday Things (I won't even link to this book's page) was a huge disappointment.

Originally entitled "The Psychology of Everyday Things", it was later renamed to sell more copies. Since the time I picked it up at the book store about a month ago, it also seems to have gotten a Web 2.0-ified new cover...

Old cover

New cover

Author, and "expert" on all things "design"

The way this book read was as follows.. the author seemed to have a huge pet peeve, bordering on obsession, with everyday things that were not designed with their intuitive factor trumping all other factors (physical appeal, price, etc). The chapters are a succession of rants, calling out widely-known problems (VCRs are hard to work, rows of light switches are confusing), and providing less-than-creative-or-optimal solutions (add an on-screen display for the VCR, mount a custom-made switchbox on the wall that looks like the map of a room - right - elegant).

The author rants about a panel of flush cabinets (which, let's say one would open by pushing to pop out or by grasping the bottom and pulling) because there is no visual indicator (i.e. a big bulky handle!) as to how to open them.

I completely agree that things should be intuitive to use. I shouldn't have to learn how to open a cabinet. That said, intuitive shouldn't necessarily trump beauty, cost, or any other factor. I don't mind taking a second to think about how to open my kitchen cabinets for the first time if they are beautiful kitchen cabinets.

Rarely is a good solution "either intuitive or elegant | simple | beautiful | inexpensive".

Unfortunately, I didn't learn anything useful from The Design of Everyday Things. I didn't learn how to design things better - just that "things should be intuitive to use" - duh. I hardly enjoyed reading several hundred pages of rants on the subject. I think the book is marketed extremely well, and that the name is quite deceiving. Most namely, while there is a science to design, the act of designing great things also involves some level of creativity and ingenuity - something I felt was passed over by this book.

Before wrapping up this rant, I'd like to provide an example of an elegant everyday-thing design - the Trofé mug from IKEA (by way of Apartment Therapy LA):

I own 4 of these 50 cent mugs. The small notch at the base allows the water to escape while drying upside down in my dishwasher.

Simple, elegant everyday-thing - one you won't learn how to design by reading a book (or not this book, at least).

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