“In London, Dissent Roils Design Museum,” reported The New York Times a few months ago—a piece of light-hearted news amid the general turmoil. The roiling dissenter turned out to be James Dyson, known to many Americans as the inventor of a newfangled vacuum cleaner. Dyson had resigned as chairman of the board of the Design Museum, objecting to the direction that the museum was taking. Recent exhibits had been devoted to fashion magazine typography, expensive women’s shoes, and the work of a 1950s British florist, Constance Spry. “Not to be rude about flower arranging, but that is not what the museum was set up to do,” Dyson said. He emphasized that the goal of the Design Museum, which was founded by the home furnishings magnate Sir Terence Conran in 1989, was to “give a lead to the public on the difference between design as styling and design as intelligent problem-solving.”

The dispute at the Design Museum is a symptom of a recent trend. Not so long ago, the term “designer” described someone like Eliot Noyes, who was responsible for the IBM Selectric typewriter in the 1960s, or Henry Dreyfuss, whose clients included Lockheed Aircraft and Bell Telephone (he was responsible for the classic black handset), or Dieter Rams, who created a range of austere-looking but very practical products for the German company Braun. Today, “designer” is more likely to bring to mind Ralph Lauren or Giorgio Armani, that is, a fashion designer. While fashion designers usually start as couturiers, they—or at least their names—are often associated with a wide variety of consumer products, including cosmetics, perfume, luggage, home furnishings, even house paint. As a result, “design” is popularly identified with packaging: the housing of a computer monitor, the barrel of a pen, a frame for eyeglasses.

An example of this is the widely advertised Umbra wastepaper basket, whose fluid shape holds crumpled paper just the way its predecessors did. It’s not a better container, merely a more stylish one. Like fashion for clothes, which is by definition fleeting, design is now perceived to be amusing and superfluous. Perhaps that’s why the word itself has become devalued. Many “designer jeans” are no more than ordinary denim pants with fancy labels. “Designer watches” are not more accurate than a Timex—the Movado is actually harder to read—but they have one important distinction: they are fashionable.

Of course, fashion has always had an influence on design. In the 1930s, there was a fashion for a streamlined look, which showed up in such classic designs as Walter Dorwin Teague’s Kodak Brownie as well as in his service station prototypes for Texaco. Streamlining, which refers to lowering resistance to air or water, made more sense when it was applied to a Pennsylvania locomotive by Raymond Loewy or to the sleek Chrysler Airflow by Carl Breer. The Airflow, introduced in 1934, pioneered such important design advances as built-in headlights and a concealed trunk, but it was not popular with the public and lasted only three years. On the other hand, the fashion for tail fins on cars, such as the 1959 Imperial, lasted a decade.

During the last twenty years, automotive engineering has taken a practical turn, so that useful features such as electronic ignition, antilock brakes, cruise control, power steering, and remote locking have become standard equipment in even modestly priced cars. Not that an abundance of safety and convenience automatically adds up to good design. I recently drove a rented Hyundai which, while it incorporated every feature listed above, did not strike me as a particularly helpful example of Dyson’s “intelligent problem-solving.” On the other hand, I fondly remember my Citroën Deux Chevaux (2CV), so-called because of its low horsepower rating (although the first model actually produced nine HP), which was designed in 1939, and was produced between 1946 and 1989. It was the French version of the Volkswagen, the people’s car, and was designed to be versatile and inexpensive (mine cost $1,500 in 1969).

The designer, Pierre Boulanger, had thought of everything. If you had a dead battery, you could start the two-cylinder engine with a hand-crank. The large wheels and soft suspension allowed you to drive smoothly over rough roads (Boulanger is said to have road-tested the prototype by driving across a plowed field). The lightweight seats, made of fabric stretched between tubular steel frames, were removable in case you wanted to transport something large—or needed lawn chairs for a picnic. The canvas roof rolled back to create a fully open top. A sudden shower once caught me with the roof open. When I took up the rubber floor mats to bail out the water, I discovered several removable rubber stoppers. Boulanger had thoughtfully provided drains.

Intelligent problem-solving is Henry Petroski’s subject. A civil engineer and a professor at Duke University, he has carved out a small niche for himself with a series of books on how things work, including To Engineer Is Human, The Evolution of Useful Things, and Invention by Design. Petroski has written about pencils and bookshelves as well as bridges and skyscrapers. His success is not surprising, for he writes clearly about complicated subjects, and provides lucid explanations and penetrating insights. Moreover, he has this field pretty much to himself, for while there are many popular writers on science, there are few on engineering, an absence that is all the more remarkable since without engineering our technological world could not function. We have become blasé about progress. Advances in communications and computing technology come with such regularity that they now seem preordained. We take it for granted that our computers will be cheaper and faster, our cell phones smaller, our cars more reliable. I had a flat tire the other day, and I realized that it was the first time I had jacked up a car in more than twenty years.


Most of us don’t know how the electronic insides of automobile engines work, because we don’t need to know. I’ve never owned a television that broke down, although as a child I remember the television repairman as a regular visitor to our house. Engineering is responsible for these successes, yet the only time that engineers come to the fore is when something goes wrong—a building collapses or an SUV tips over.

There are no Nobel Prizes for engineering. The popular view is that science is more important, since it lays the foundation for technology, an impression reinforced by the press, which tends to publicize scientific discoveries. Yet as Petroski reminds us, engineering often does its work independently of science; indeed, it often anticipates science. The Romans built the Pantheon, which remained the largest dome in the world for over a thousand years (until Brunelleschi’s dome for the Duomo in Florence), long before there was a theoretical basis for calculating the strength of the structure. The invention of the steam engine came before thermodynamics, just as the first flying machines predated aerodynamics. Engineers need to know how to make things work, but they don’t need to know exactly why they work. “Certainly, the engineers who design and build a bridge rely on expert knowledge and experience and even science,” Petroski writes. But before the laws of science can be applied, the bridge structure itself must be imagined:

Whether or not science can be applied to that mental construct is a matter of availability. If there is a body of scientific knowledge that can be applied, then it would be foolish not to exploit it. However, if there is none, it does not mean that the thing cannot be designed, made, and used safely.

Experience, not science, is the basis for engineering.

Small Things Considered (the author has a propensity for puns) examines the design of a number of everyday devices such as single-handed faucets, automobile cup holders, and common duct tape. In an interesting chapter, Petroski traces the development of the disposable paper cup. This common object originated at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the importance of clean drinking water in combating disease, particularly typhoid, became known. In the interest of promoting public hygiene, a group of Boston investors backed a vending machine that dispensed disposable paper cups, to replace the traditional dipper or common drinking cup at drinking fountains. Their idea was to dispense the cups in folded form, like little paper envelopes. Lawrence W. Luellen, an entrepreneur and inventor, learned of the project, and thought that a stiff, fully formed cup would be a much better solution. In time, he patented a design for a round, slightly tapered cup, formed out of two pieces of waxed paper. The design called for a flange, or rim, on the cup, which was critical, since the flange not only stiffened the cup but also provided a means of holding a stack of nested cups in the vending machine—a simple but sophisticated concept. “The flexibility of the paper cup was critical to proper operation,” Petroski writes:

When the bottom cup in a stack is pulled down, its rim deforms slightly to allow it to be tugged past pinch points on the inside surface of the dispenser. Those same pinch points serve to hold back the remaining cups, thus preventing them from falling out of the dispenser under the action of gravity alone.

In 1909, Luellen founded the Public Cup Vendor Company, based in New York City, to manufacture and lease disposable cup vending machines. His first client was the Lackawanna Railroad, which installed the cup dispensers beside water coolers in trains. As his business prospered, Luellen decided that he needed a snappier name, and took one from a neighboring factory, the Dixie Doll Company.


Dixie cups were available at water coolers for most of the twentieth century and were never really improved upon. My dentist still uses them, but most coolers dispense the less expensive conical cup, which is made from a single piece of paper. The conical cup is not exactly a functional improvement, for it cannot be set down, and it must be held gingerly, since the shape has no stiffness and it’s easy to spill water if one squeezes too hard. This illustrates one of Petroski’s themes, that design always involves a series of compromises. A disposable cup must be cheap, and the conical cup is definitely cheaper than the traditional Dixie cup. A conical cup can’t be placed on a desk, but since most people drink the water in one gulp, that is not a major liability. The conical cup is flimsy, but people get used to being careful. That, too, is a recurring theme: design isn’t perfect because it doesn’t have to be, since human beings are highly adaptable. “We learn to live in a world of imperfect things,” Petroski observes.

Some devices are popular not because they do one thing particularly well but because they are capable of doing many things. Reading Small Things Considered, I was surprised to learn that ubiquitous duct tape, which is used to wrap parcels, repair rusted cars, patch a ripped jacket, or seal a house in case of biological terrorism, was actually designed to be ubiquitous. According to Petroski, duct tape was developed during World War II, by chemists at Johnson & Johnson. The US military wanted a water-resistant tape that could serve soldiers in the field as a multipurpose repair and waterproofing tape. It had to be sticky and capable of being easily ripped into lengths by hand. The resulting tape consisted of cotton duck covered by rubber-based adhesive on one side and polyethylene on the other. It was called duck cloth tape, or duck tape for short. It was only later, when the product entered civilian life and was widely used by plumbing contractors to seal galvanized ductwork, that it came to be known as duct tape.

Another example of how an everyday object was designed is Petroski’s story of the grocery bag. Originally, grocery bags were made by individual storekeepers who cut, folded, and pasted sheets of paper for their customers. In 1852, Francis Wolle, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, invented a machine that mass-produced bags at the rate of 1,800 per hour. The bags resembled large envelopes, which meant that they couldn’t accommodate bulky items. The breakthrough design improvement to the grocery bag was made by Margaret E. Knight, one of the most prolific women inventors of the second half of the nineteenth century, who obtained twenty-seven patents in a wide variety of fields, including dressmaking, shoe manufacturing, and improvements to rotary car engines. She designed a boxlike bag with a flat bottom that could be folded from a single piece of heavy paper. She also patented a complicated machine that could fold paper in ways resembling origami and then glue it. That was in 1871. It was left to Luther Crowell, a year later, to improve the design by simplifying the number of folds and introducing the accordion pleats on the side of the bag. The result was the familiar brown paper bag.

The grocery bag is a particularly ingenious piece of design. Produced in a flat folded form that takes up little storage space, it is made from a single sheet of paper with a minimum number of folds. Most important, when opened, it stands upright by itself, which permits the person filling or emptying it to work with both hands. Petroski points out a small but telling detail: the little notch that is cut into the top of one of the bag’s sides, which “permitted the bagger’s thumb and fingers to grasp only one side of the bag. This,” he writes, “enabled the bagger in one sweeping motion to snap it open with the flair of a waiter opening a napkin before placing it on a diner’s lap.”

The author writes in the past tense because, as everyone knows, paper bags have largely given way to plastic. The main reason is economic—plastic bags are much cheaper—but plastic bags also have two functional advantages. An overloaded paper bag can easily rip, especially when it gets wet, whereas plastic is stronger and not affected by moisture. The second advantage of plastic bags is that they are made with integral handles, a great convenience, since one can carry several bags at a time. The handles of paper bags are glued on, which is expensive, and they tend to pull off if yanked at an angle. The major drawback of the plastic bag is that it doesn’t stand up by itself. This is solved in most supermarkets by an ingenious wire dispensing rack. But once you leave the store you are on your own. Generally when you place a plastic bag full of groceries on a flat surface, the contents will spill out. So is the plastic bag a step backward? As with the Dixie cup, it is a matter of compromise. Petroski writes,

The plastic bag has clearly become the container of choice, shoppers adjusting to its limitations the way people 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.

One only hopes that a future Margaret Knight will someday find a way to improve this useful but irritating device.

Even more significant in its effect on daily life is the supermarket shopping cart, which has been central to the retail revolution that has swept America, replacing department stores, specialty shops, and shopping malls with Wal-Marts, Home Depots, and Targets. Although the self-service supermarket was invented in 1916 (the Piggly-Wiggly store in Memphis), it was more than twenty years before someone had the idea of providing shoppers with carts rather than simple wire baskets. In 1939, Sylvan N. Goldman, the owner of an Oklahoma supermarket chain, devised a rolling “basket carrier.” This device resembled a folding chair on wheels and carried two baskets, which were taken off the cart at the cash register. The cart folded up when not in use. It took another decade for the shopping cart to assume its present shape: a large fixed basket, often with a place for a young child to sit, and a flap front allowing carts to be nested inside one another for more compact storage. Interestingly, Goldman’s basket carrier, which takes up less space than a cart, has made a reappearance in some supermarkets.

No one could call the ungainly shopping cart an example of good design. Objects rattle around in the cavernous basket. Small items, placed on the baby seat, tend to fall through the metal grille. Bulkier items can be stored with difficulty below the basket. Perhaps it’s crude because it’s used to transport so many different items, not only groceries and grocery bags, but also toilet paper, television sets, garden products, and even lumber. The only intelligently designed cart I’ve ever used was a luggage cart in the Zurich airport. Since luggage carts must also carry many different objects—trunks, suitcases, duffels, golf bags—they, too, have an oddly slapdash appearance. But the Zurich carts had a rubber device between the wheels that allowed the cart to be safely wheeled onto an escalator.


“Design in the sense of aesthetics and fashion often goes counter to design in the sense of function, use, and common sense,” Petroski observes. In his recently published collection of essays, Pushing the Limits, he discusses London’s Tower Bridge, which is an example of the uneasy relationship that sometimes exists between aesthetics and engineering. Tower Bridge was designed by the engineer John Wolfe Barry at the end of the nineteenth century. It was the first large span (270 feet) of the bascule type, that is, it was a drawbridge each of whose thousand-ton sections was constructed so that when one end was lowered the other end was raised. Tower Bridge was a masterpiece of Victorian engineering. Power was provided by a 360-horsepower steam-pumping engine that pressurized water and drove rotary hydraulic engines that raised and lowered each bascule. When the bridge was raised, pedestrians could still cross on two upper-level footbridges.

For most people, the most memorable features of Tower Bridge are its two towers. These, like the rest of the bridge, are constructed of steel but are covered in granite and were designed by the architect Horace Jones in the neo-Gothic style. They resemble medieval keeps, harmonizing with the neighboring Tower of London. Not everyone approved of this. Petroski quotes a contemporary critic who wrote that Tower Bridge

represents the vice of tawdriness and pretentiousness, and of falsification of the actual facts of the structure…. All architects would have much preferred the plain steel structure to this kind of sham.

Perhaps, although most Londoners and tourists would likely cast their vote for Jones’s charming fairy-tale spires.

In an essay on the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Petroski describes the complicated steel structure that supports Frank Gehry’s swirling shapes. A photograph of the building under construction makes it clear that the finished product bears little resemblance to the structure beneath; like the Gothic skin of Tower Bridge, the titanium and limestone are a wrapping. The chief difference between Bilbao and Tower Bridge is that at Bilbao, the wrapping came first. Petroski likens the Spanish museum to the Statue of Liberty. When Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi conceived the giant statue, he had no idea of exactly how it would stand up, and it took Gustave Eiffel to design the complicated wrought iron structural frame that supports the copper shell.

Even in the work of an architect-engineer such as Santiago Calatrava, who is currently designing the transportation terminal at the World Trade Center site, and whose designs seem to be a demonstration of structural forces, the relationship between aesthetics and engineering is far from straightforward. Petroski writes that the architect-engineer’s “striking works of art” are rarely the simplest or the most efficient engineering solutions. “Another criticism of Calatrava’s designs is their constructability—or, rather, their lack of constructability,” he adds. One of Calatrava’s most famous works is the Alamillo Bridge, built for the 1992 Seville world’s fair. The structure is held by cables hung from a single, angled, 142-meter mast. “Most cable-stayed bridges are designed to be self-supporting even when only partially completed, but the unusual design of the Alamillo Bridge did not allow that,” writes Petroski. Gehry’s and Calatrava’s best-known buildings and bridges come very close to “designer architecture,” although Petroski does not use that term.

Beautiful forms don’t necessarily follow good engineering. Nor is good engineering automatically beautiful, as a comparison of two Chicago skyscrapers, the John Hancock Center and the Sears Tower, shows. Both were designed by the same architect, Bruce Graham of SOM, and the same engineer, Fazlur Khan. The structure of both buildings follows the principle, pioneered by Khan, of having a central tube. Petroski makes it clear that the 1,454-foot Sears Tower is a feat of structural engineering, yet the Hancock Center, with its exposed criss-crossed bracing and its distinctive tapered shape, is a much more striking design than the rather banal Sears Tower. Both buildings solve the complex problem of building an extremely tall building in an effective manner, but the Hancock Center—known locally as Big John—does so with more style.

Petroski and Dyson are right that styling and design are not the same thing, but of course it is impossible to keep style out of design. The design of some products, like duct tape and brown paper bags, is almost pure problem-solving, while the design of others, like Movado watches and Umbra wastepaper baskets, is largely styling. However, on the whole, in most designed objects, whether they are chairs, or automobiles, or skyscrapers, styling and problem-solving are messily but inextricably intertwined. The best-designed objects manage to solve problems with a sense of style, often the work of a designer whose name is hardly known.

This Issue

June 9, 2005