Duke Engineer's Latest Book Focuses on Design of Everyday Things

December 1, 2002

What do paper cups, toothbrushes, supermarket layouts, grocery bags, kitchen faucets, door knobs and automobile cup holders have in common? They all are the imperfect products of designers seeking to come up with something better for consumers.

Henry Petroski, Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, looks at the design of things we take for granted and concludes there can never be an end to the quest for the perfect design.

In Small Things Considered (Alfred A. Knopf, September 2003), Petroski notes that all design involves choice, usually to satisfy competing constraints, whether they be cost, size, efficiency or the myriad other factors that make the difference between a design that works and one that doesn’t.

“There can never be an end to the quest for the perfect design,” Petroski writes. “Even in nature, absolute perfection, in the sense of something being completely flawless, is rare, if not totally absent. The close examination of any botanical or zoological specimen always reveals irregularities at some power of magnification -- a tiny blemish or a mutant gene.

“The design of made things, as opposed to design in nature and the artistic interpretation of it, necessarily proceeds within the confines of the laws of science and economics. An artist may paint a woman floating in the air on her birthday, and a collector may spend millions of dollars on a painting of sunflowers that he will hang in his private gallery. But an inventor or designer of practical things must accept the realities of gravity and budgets, keeping his feet on the ground and his eye on the price.”

In his nine previous books, Petroski has written about bridges, pencils, paperclips, books and bookshelves, engineering errors and more. He turned his intellectual curiosity inward in a book published last year, to his teenage days when he delivered newspapers.

In Small Things Considered, Petroski looks at a variety of common things and how their designs evolved.

Take the paper cup, for example. Petroski says it was spawned early last century when people began to realize that the communal tin cup from which everyone -- healthy and sick alike -- drank at the public water barrel, well, pump or spigot often was the source of germs and disease. A group of Boston investors saw money to be made in making clean and disposable paper cups available at public water fountains. Their idea was a cup that would be dispensed in a flat, folded configuration that could be opened.

An inventor and entrepreneur named Lawrence W. Luellen was intrigued by the idea, but Petroski says Luellen thought the chances of success would be greatly enhanced if the cup were delivered round and fully formed. He eventually came up with a design that had a flange around the top edge of the cup to stiffen it, and make it easier to dispense one cup at a time from a stack of nested cups in a dispensing machine. Luellen and his partners later named the product the Dixie cup.

“Water drinkers of all ages now eschew public fountains, which stand idle in many a school hallway as students and teachers alike have become accustomed to carrying their own plastic bottles,” Petroski writes. “In fact, students and others generally have become so used to drinking water from a bottle that the public fountain may be in danger of becoming obsolete.”

Also in danger of becoming obsolete is the paper grocery bag, which was developed in the mid-1800s. The plastic bag was introduced into American supermarkets in the mid-1970s, Petroski writes, and their plastic handles, which enable shoppers to carry many more bags at a time, are among their most competitive features. But Petroski says there is no way to pack a plastic bag with the same care that can be achieved with a square-bottomed paper bag and “putting a plastic bag full of jars and cans down in a car trunk is an invitation for its contents to roll away and seek out the trunk’s most distant corners.”

“Yet the plastic bag has clearly become the container of choice, we shoppers adjusting to its limitations the way we adjust to those of all designs. The once near-perfect upstanding paper grocery bag has mostly been displaced by something that is at the same time superior and yet inferior. That is the way it often is with designed objects,” Petroski writes.

“That nothing is perfect is not an indictment of design, but an acknowledgment of its human origins. Though there may be no perfect design, we can still speak of good design. We can admire the elegant solution, appreciate the ingenious device, and enjoy the clever gadget. Imperfect as they may be, they represent the triumph of the human mind over the world of things, and the achievements of accomplished designers uplift the spirit of us all.

“The pole-vaulter who sets a new record is no less of a champion because he does not clear the next bar height. He had conceived and executed his run, the planting of his pole, and the arc of his body in the best way that he could for that meet, and for the time being at least, his best is the best. We applaud what he did achieve, with the expectation that someday he or some other athlete may design a better vaulting technique and so set a new record. That is the nature of design.”