Review: The Evolution of Useful Things

Henry Petroski’s The Evolution of Useful Things is ostensibly about how things like paperclips and zippers came into being. And, sure, that stuff is in the book. But what is most interesting (for me and probably for other designers as well) is his debunking of the design dictum “Form Follows Function,” replacing it instead with “Form Follows Failure.”

Petroski looks at the diversity of objects (131 knives in the Montgomery Ward catalog, say) and asks, Why? “What underlying idea governs how a particular product looks?” he asks.

All designed objects, Petroski asserts, leave room for improvement. Nothing is perfect. Even things that have been “perfected” over a millennia such as tables and chairs can be improved upon. It is the one common feature among made objects, and

“it is exactly this feature that drives the evolution of things, for the coincidence of a perceived problem with an imagined solution enables a design change.”

What form the solution takes can vary widely, given the same basic problem. Petroksi offers up the example of the fork and chopsticks as an example. Both designed for manipulating food from a hot pot (which would burn and dirty the fingers) to the mouth, but two very different design solutions. Form does not follow function. Instead, “the form of one thing follows the failure of another thing to function as we would like.”

This isn’t to say that some designs aren’t better than others. Certain attributes (like the appearance of a chess piece or the tines of a fork) become fixed over time because they are more perfect than any solution found thus far. New designs (or “inventions” as Petroski calls them) arise out of “the crowded past of reality” only if they better address the perceived need better than what is currently available, often following the correction of failure after failure, sometimes for centuries. “Looking forward is indeed the essence of design, but artifacts take their form over the course of long, rough, and frequently precarious roads,” Petroksi writes.

Form (at least expected form) also follows, to an extent, fashion. “Fashion more than function is without question what determins so many of the contemporary forms around us,” Petroksi claims, adding a warning, “A myopic obsession with fashion…can lead to premature extinction…if it does not anticipate failure in the broadest sense, including the failure to be fashionable tomorrow.”

As a plumber’s son (and grandson and great-grandson), I was particularly taken with the chapters on specialized tools, which goes into detail about why, for instance, there are dozens of types of hammers. There’s also an interesting discussion about the social life of tools, how it is more socially-advantageous to be able to handle silverware well than it is to wield a hammer well.

Petroski also notes that design solutions can also give rise to new problems. fast-food packaging, for instance, while excellent for solving the immediate problems of making and consuming the food rapidly, are a tremendous litter problem. Petroski admonishes designers to “look beyond immediate use. Each artifact introduced into the universe of people and things alters the behavior of both.”


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