Back when I read Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things , I was irritated with Norman’s parochial short-sightedness in exalting “usability” over such trivial concerns as aesthetics, practicality, and cost. So when the introduction to Henry Petroski’s Small Things Considered made the explicit point that design is a trade-off among all these elements, I was optimistic that Petroski’s book would be better than Norman’s.
But my optimism waned when Petroski went on to praise Norman’s writing and insight, and waned further when he rephrased his (rather obvious) observation a half-dozen different ways over the space of ten pages; I began to realize that this wasn’t going to be an interesting and challenging book — it was instead going to be filled with platitudes and fluffy generalizations. And so it was. The subtitle of Petroski’s book is “Why there is no perfect design,” but inasmuch as he answers that question in the first five pages, there doesn’t appear to be much of a book to be made of that answer; so instead, he uses imperfectibility as a loose organizing principle of the book, with heavy emphasis on the “loose.”
One chapter, for instance, is ostensibly about the difficulties of design with regard to houses. But instead of really getting into that topic, Petroski rambles on about his own experience getting an addition put into his house. If you’re interested in the difficulties he had with his contractor (despite an initial agreement that he’d use a particular kind of subfloor, the contractor went with something cheaper!) and the weather (as the roof was getting redone, it rained, and their carpet was ruined!), this is a thrilling chapter. If you’re a normal person, however, it’s painfully dull. And it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with design, any more than his exhaustive recital of how one prepares and eats a meal does.
The flaps on the dust cover say that Petroski’s written ten more books, and a quick glance at Amazon shows that most appear to be on the same theme. My guess is that Petroski’s found himself a little niche in publishing, and he’s going to keep cranking out book after book to fill that niche, regardless of whether he’s got anything new to say. Small Things Considered didn’t infuriate me the way that Norman’s book did, but that’s only because it didn’t say a damn thing worth being infuriated about. It’s lazy, contentless, and completely unnecessary. The kindest thing I can say in its defense is that it might be a good basis for a three-page magazine article.