Books on Things

Lately I’ve noticed on my bookcase a lot of books with the word “Things” in them. I could say this is obvious: My lifetime interest in things is what naturally led me to a career in industrial design, and this explains why I have gravitated to books with the word in the title over the years, although I haven’t knowingly collected them that way. Here’s the list, in no particular order:

The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self (Csikszentmihalyi & Rochberg-Halton, 1981)

The Evolution of Useful Things (Petroski, 1992)

The Design of Everyday Things / The Psychology of Everyday Things (Norman, 1988)

Things That Make Us Smart (Norman, 1993)

The Design of Future Things (Norman, 2007)

The Language of Things (Sudjic, 2009)

Why Things Bite Back (Tenner, 1996)

History from Things: Essays on Material Culture (Lubar & Kingery, eds., 1993)

Taste: The Secret Meaning of Things (Bayley, 1991)

Design and Emotion: The Experience of Everyday Things (McDonagh, Hekkert, van Erp, Gyi, eds., 2004)

And here’s apparently one I need to acquire:

Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design (Kuniavsky, 2010)

Some of these books remain among my favorites, and I know many of them were influential in making my career. I still recommend The Design of Everyday Things to my students as a must-read landmark book, based on Norman’s highly accessible human factors critique and the design implications of everyday product encounters, to say noting of it laying the groundwork for his subsequent important books. Csikszentmihalyi’s Meaning of Things is perhaps one of the most instrumental non-design texts used by designers as a reference for understanding product meaning in past and design and emotion still today. Stephen Bayley’s Taste is simply an enjoyable read, with his acidic critique and witty social history of things ranging from interior design to fashion and food. And of course Petroski’s Evolution of Useful Things brings to ubiquitous objects like the paper clip the interesting history they deserve.

Maybe what connects these references is the very human connection to the everyday, making them not only insightful for human centered design but relatable and interesting to any reader, reminding us ultimately why things are important to people.

Designer’s Dilemma: Coffee Makers

Once again I was able to turn a simple shopping decision into a classic designer’s dilemma, debating the pro and con factors of function, style, and the environment. My Krups coffee maker suddenly died (literally, made coffee in the morning, by noon it behaved like it was unplugged). Like many products designed by my profession, I suspected it would not be fixable, and sure enough after some online research and a call to Krups, that suspicion was confirmed. After overcoming my conscience at discarding yet another failed appliance by blaming it on “the system”, I turned my attention to replacement. Boy, that Keurig we have at work sure is convenient and makes a perfect cup of decaf on demand for me every day… but, the obvious environmental downsides of those little disposable pods, coupled with per-cup and per-pound coffee calculations made available online by others who have conveniently done the math for me, eventually shamed me away from this option. I looked briefly at the beautifully colored “Bella Dots” line at Target, which turn out to be much more captivating in photos than upon close inspection of material and manufacturing quality (although they are well reviewed).

Bella Dots coffee makers from Target

Then I remembered the Bodum French press. Not to sound preachy here, but these things require no filters and no peripheral supplies aside from boiled water and your coffee. After doing my usual round of research and conversations with colleagues more connoisseur than me, I confirmed that this simple system also makes great coffee, if done right. I picked up the 8-cup Chambord at Bed Bath and Beyond, and a nice Aroma electric kettle at Target, placed them both on a simple silver tray where the giant Krups once stood, and I now have an elegant looking ritual designed for my morning routine. Keurig remains my indulgence at work (justified by the saving of multiple wasted pots of coffee each day); and as for Krups.. I was able to donate it for dissection to my colleague Steve for his “How Things Work” course. It’s all good.

The Bodum Chambord French Press.
Buying a coffee maker: Keeping industrial design in business, but on its toes.

On WordPress

I’ve just rebuilt my website (and added a blog) after losing my previous site through the collapse of MobileMe and iWeb. Probably a good thing, as it was due for a refresh anyway, but frustrating that Apple so unceremoniously shut down these services, only to hang a tacky image of a swinging sign reading “Mobile Me is Closed”, where sites once stood. After searching for alternatives, I landed on WordPress as a viable alternative: More flexible in many respects, but not without it’s challenges! I have to grade it low on intuitive use, even though I was able to figure most things out eventually, navigating the complex and oddly worded menus to create more website than blog, understanding unique image requirements, and deciphering best ways to embed links. Case in point: One would think to toggle a site between private and public, you would find a simple privacy option under “Settings”, rather than Settings / Reading / Site visibility: “Allow search engines to index this site”, which apparently by checking turns you public. Nevertheless, I’m pleased with the result. A good option for those of us not of programming mind and skills.. and hey, for free, who can complain?