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Petroski on Engineering: a Geography of Design

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Engineering Design
SparkyWatt   6/4/2012 1:51:16 PM
Anyone who thinks that Engineers lack design sense (in the Aesthetic sense) should look at the things that Engineers designed in the 1930's.  They looked strong, solid, sleek, fast.  In their own way they were beautiful, definitely not awkward.  Even the weapons of WWII had a very rugged practical look.

Of course, that was a day when Engineers sketched things by hand.  Their inherent sense of fit guided their pencils.  It wasn't a conscious thing.  They simply drew things at a position and size that felt right.  Then adjusted them as the requirements demanded.

Nowadays with the complex intermediary of the computer, we can do far more complex things.  But that simple guiding flow has been broken, and it shows terribly.  Making things beautiful and visually "organic" has become much harder.

I actually remember when I first saw it in the early 1980s.  A shopping mall in my area had been refurbished, and I was stunned (in a bad way).  The interior looked like a computer graphic (and back in those days, that was pretty simplistic).  They had tried to incorporate "design" elements to make it visually interesting, but the overall effect was to make it look like it was built out of Legos.

I don't think architectural design has ever recovered, and I think the bull-nosed things they call cars today look heavy and mean.  But who knows, maybe soon a method of creating things on the computer that is as intuitive as the pencil will be invented (don't say the stylus, it is a perfectly good input device, but until CAD software can make shapes from stylus sketches, it doesn't count.  It is the method that needs to be invented, not the device).

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in the mind
ChasChas   6/4/2012 10:37:03 AM

Excellent read.

It shows that we design our physical living space for practicality and stimulus, but our true living space is in the mind.

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book design
jljarvis   6/4/2012 9:24:13 AM

From your picture, I fear you're falling prey to the same experience related shortcoming the rest of us with grey hair are feeling, to a greater or lesser extent.  :)   Opticians rejoice, I'm sure.  

Design has a value, in how it makes us feel, and how it allows us to use technology.  That value is irrespective of the age... errr experience... of the user.   Business week has shifted to a layout which flags the page number in the middle of the right hand side of the page, in bold color.  Most helpful, if lacking in subtlety. 


Charles Murray
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Re: Dingbats
Charles Murray   6/1/2012 5:26:37 PM
I agree, Naperlou. I, too, have long thought that Apple products were overpriced. Maybe it's my engineering sensibility talking here, but I've always thought that the genius of Steve Jobs was in marketing and industrial design, not in technology, as is so often claimed. Apple's products have a reputation for being easier to use and learn, and Apple has been positively brilliant in appealing to customers who want, and are willing to pay for, high-end products.

Rob Spiegel
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Art department out of control
Rob Spiegel   6/1/2012 11:56:48 AM

What you're describing here is an instance when the art or design department made decisions apart from the need for simple functionality. As a former publisher, I know that the art department -- a wonderful crew -- needs to be monitored. Their aesthetic decisions can quickly divert from the practical needs of the reader.

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naperlou   6/1/2012 10:14:43 AM

Henry, thank you.  Now I know what dingbats are.  I have seen them in listings of fonts, but I never really used them, or understood what their origin is. 


I really appreciate your description of the subtleties of the design of the book.  I have always liked such things, but I am becoming more used to electronic versions of books as time goes on.  In the end, they are lighter (on one move my wife and I made we were informed that our books weighed 3,000 pounds).  I do miss the tactile feel of the real books, though.  Most readers put a book in a standard format with pages being decided by screen size.


As for your mention of Apple and design, I find it interesting.  I have always looked on their products as being much too expensive and closed.  Many years ago I was the CIO of an aerospace plant.  We had a large proposal to do and the team (which I had previously worked for) decided to go around me to purchase a network of Macs to do the proposal on.  They wanted to bypass our tech pubs group and do the page layout themselves.  They spent $200K on equipment and overran the proposal budget by $400K.  As you can imagine, there was an inquest and the program manager lost his job.  The reason I mention this in the context of your article is that of design.  What we ended up doing was having senior engineers doing something they had no training in.  The page layout and design aspects of the proposal (which was thousands of pages) was awful.  We were lucky that we had bought the competitor before the bidding process was over.  By the way, it was a $1B project.


There really is an art to creating a book.  Even in the most plain text only books you would see references to fonts used.  These had a lot to do with readability and the feeling one gets from reading the book. 


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