By Design: Why there are no locks on the bathroom doors in the Hotel Louis XIV and other object lessons 2nd edition, Fairchild Books & Visuals, 2004, 267 pages, $40.00
For many years now, Ralph Caplan's By Design was the first book I would recommend to anyone who wanted to know-really wanted to know-about design and what designers do. It is short, it is smart, it is witty, and it is just good company. Unfortunately, it has long been out of print. Now we can be grateful that the book has been published in a handsome second edition, complete with contemporary four-color images and, best yet, a new chapter that covers some of the significant changes in design since the book was originally published in 1982.
Ralph Caplan is not himself a designer, but as a writer and editor for ID Magazine, a director of the International Design Conference in Aspen, and a copywriter, he has collaborated with leading designers on everything from brochures to exhibitions. He makes it clear that he really likes designers-or rather, he likes the people he knows who practice design-but he is also alarmed at how they apply their skills. He deplores the gap he sees between the talents of "sensitive, intelligent, and highly trained men and women" and the triviality of the problems that professional designers are employed to solve. For Caplan, designers are an underutilized resource: "One reason for believing that designers could professionally address social issues is that their primary competence lies not in the technicalities of a craft but in the mastery of a process that can help us solve problems or deal with predicaments. That process consists generally of seizing on a purpose; defining the situation or problem; identifying constraints and organizing materials, people, and events in a way that can be modeled and visualized in advance."
The foregoing excerpt is from a chapter on "situation design," which Caplan defines as "the concept of moving from the design of things to the design of the circumstances in which things are used." This chapter meanders purposefully from psychology to theatre to housing design to aircraft disasters to comedy to palmistry to writer's cramp, to . . . and so it goes, sprinkling epiphanies along the way: "The most elegant design solution of the 1950s was not the molded plywood chair or the Olivetti Lettera 22 or the chapel at Ronchamp. It was the sit-in. Achieved with a stunning economy of means, and a complete understanding of the function intended and the resources available, it is a form beautifully suited to its urgent task."
The book also includes chapters dedicated to more-conventional topics, such as the recent history of the industrial design profession, the distinction between design and art, the design of chairs, and an appreciation of the office of Charles and Ray Eames. One of the most provocative and disturbing chapters is "The Way Things Mean," which deals with the way our materialist culture paradoxically subverts our direct relationship with the objects of the material world. Caplan shows all the ways our culture-even our supposedly sophisticated design culture-acts out to mask our alienation from the tactile enjoyment of objects for their own sake. "We still must learn to make the resources of technology yield objects we respect and love, objects designed for use and affection rather than for sales and acceptance."
In the introduction, the author claims that By Design is written "for people who couldn't care less," but this is somewhat misleading. While it will appeal to a wide audience, the book is a call to professional designers to apply their considerable abilities to challenges worthy of them. And it is an appeal to nondesigners to recognize and apply this powerful process to their own efforts to "make things right."
Copyright Design Management Institute Fall 2004
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