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How Things Don’t Work

Since I left The Big City, I’ve thought less and less about design: the design of buildings, the design of books, and the design of things. This book is about things, and how things are designed. Specifically Papanek, who was a noted designer concerned with social responsibility, notes how consumer products have become designed for easier manufacturing and distribution, NOT for ease of use by consumers. This is mystifying if what we’re being told about our market economy is true: that we are the customer, and we know what we want, and we are always right. Papanek goes through list of commonplace items and explains that while their design may be useful for mass production [being able to be made cheaply, transported easily, installed quickly] they are not enjoyed by users. They may be hard to use, dangerous to use, time-consuming to use, or just plain old not appealing.

Papanek’s rants about objects like the sliding shower door enclosure, or the instant-on TV are amusing, and fun to read, but there is also a lot of truth in what he is saying. Papanek spent a lot of his life trying to design products for the disabled, the full range of society’s people [very heavy people, elderly people, the very tall and the very short] and people in developing countries. He tries to create products that people will want to use that can be made on a budget and used without requiring expensive maintenance or repair. The products he and his team of students come up with are often more interesting than whatever it is we are using in their place [toilets, for example] because they have been designed, not made by committee with the lowest cost materials in the simplest way. The book is easy to read, contains lots of illustrations and asks a lot of useful questions that are still relevant today, such as “why, if the tallest building in town is two stories, do we still need a fire truck with a six story ladder?” A great read, worth trying to track down.