If you had to explain design to the uninitiated, where would you start? With a technological object you could hold in your hand? With the history of the word “design”? With tales from the literal trenches, where, in 246 BC, standardized bows and arrows allowed Ying Zheng to become the self-styled “First Emperor of China”? Or would you begin and end closer to home, exploring the design histories of the kitchen drawers and appliances you see before you, from fork to spoon to spit?
These are not rhetorical questions. As design becomes part of mainstream cultural discussion and, in the form of “design thinking,” that discussion becomes a commodity in itself, design writing reorients itself to explain history to audiences coming to it from the worlds of technology, science, business and food. Two recent books, one by design critic Alice Rawsthorn, the other by British food writer Bee Wilson, illustrate radically different ways of going about this explanatory task. After reading both, I decided their success may lie less in the approach than in its interlock with the preferences of the reader.
In Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, Rawsthorn tries the first three of the methods listed above. Her prologue begins with the smartphone, its inscrutability as an object predicated on generations of under-the-hood improvements to hardware and software. She quotes John Heskett’s grammatically correct sentence on the question of definitions: “Design is to design a design to produce a design.” Chapter 1, “What is design?” moves from Ying Zheng to Leonardo da Vinci, IDEO to dog breeding. Her text is obviously aimed at non-designers, as she smoothly recounts the familiar creation myths of design-cult heroes Wedgewood, Thonet, Braun and Apple, correctly crediting the importance of the client in the creation of a successful commercial project. She quotes IBM chairman Thomas J. Watson Jr. at several points, redefining his maxim, “Good design is good business,” for a more sustainable and skeptical world. Rawsthorn draws a clear line between commercial and critical design, and makes clear how designers are implicated in the supply chains that fill dumps and pollute waters.
Military history has been a favorite topic of the business book for years (see under, Sun Tzu, The Art of War) and so Ying Zheng’s prominent placement seems like an attempt to create a new version of that hero tweaked to argue for better design. Chapter 2, “What is a designer?” starts with Blackbeard, the pirate, flying the Jolly Roger – an early and effective example of symbol design. Chapter 3, “What is good design?" has a less bloodthirsty presiding spirit, a nervous William Morris speaking of the “useful” and the “beautiful.” (A woman opens Chapter 13, "What about ‘the other 90%?": Studio H’s Emily Pilloton.) After these purposeful, dramatic narratives, Rawsthorn marshals numerous examples from design history and current practice to answer the questions in her chapter titles. She’s written a sort of cyclical survey of what design is now, where favorites like Dieter Rams and Apple keep popping up, even as she expands the canon to include projects like Studio H or Daily Dump in Bangalore, an individual, open-source waste management program. She deserves much credit for bridging the 20th century, connecting the 19th to the 21st.
I'm clearly not the audience for the book (and neither are most Design Observer readers) but I found myself questioning the breezy, example-laden approach as a means of connecting to the uninitiated. The questions asked and answered in most chapters, before we get to the 90%, seemed difficult to distinguish from each other. Returning to Apple seemed like a pander ("Here's some design you know and love and makes money!"), as when every museum design exhibit had to have first a Macintosh, then an iPhone. In my own work I tend to focus on the telling passage or the telling detail, and to move from the particular to the general. Rawsthorn's title promises that scale shift: "hello world" are the words used to test whether a computer system is operating properly, an inside joke that has become meaningful on multiple levels. But I didn't feel like we got under the hood and explored that many other design worlds, except on the way to another example.
What Rawsthorn doesn’t do often is take a single example of design and tell us all about it as a physical experience. She focuses on physical objects in sections on Dieter Rams’s shallow indentations on the buttons of the SK4 stereo, and Arne Jacobsen’s flatware for the SAS Royal Hotel, used without change in Stanley Kubrick’s "2001: A Space Odyssey." Perhaps the business reader wants to hear about success rather than use, but if they don't understand the second, it is hard to see how they can achieve the first.
Wilson, in Consider the Fork, takes exactly the opposite approach. Where Rawsthorn looks digitally, internationally, sustainably, Wilson finds a surprising amount of history in the contents of her cutlery drawer. Chapter interludes feature close-ups, with line drawings of tongs, an egg beater, a toaster. There are few designer names, and she spends her introduction arguing for the wooden spoon as technology (a statement about which I need little convincing). Once Wilson begins her kitchen tales, one is carried along without dissonance from meals buried underground to “cook” them, to the animals and children used to turn the traditional spit, to a paean to the tou, a Chinese cleaver that appears to do everything Westerners need a knife-block full of blades to accomplish. What ties chapters together is a known process, cutting, measuring, grinding. Wilson’s audience is also not designers, but all of us who cook and eat, so for the professional there are aggravations when it comes to discussing kitchen appliances as design objects (the very interactions Rawsthorn highlights as key to a smooth-running life). Wilson could learn a few lessons from Hello World.
Ultimately I was more drawn to Wilson’s details, and her mini-narratives drawn from the short distance between bowl and mouth. She succeeds in estranging us from everyday processes, which allows us to consider them afresh, the process of a good designer. For some, the broad survey makes them feel oriented, satisfied. Rawsthorn’s book covers the territory. For others, design doesn’t make sense until they relate it to their own experience. Does this mean we have to rethink the outward-facing design survey? I think so. Or perhaps someone needs to write a design survey from the cursor outward.
For more on Consider the Fork, see my previous essay on the New Yorker blog or Jenny Uglow's review in the New York Review of Books. For a different take on Rawsthorn, see Joseph Grima in Domus. Wilson also wrote a terrific review of Michael Pollan's latest, Cooked, for the New York Times Book Review.