The best leads, anywhere:
A new collection of essays by Ralph Caplan
by Allan Chochinov
This has been a great year for Ralph Caplan fans. First, his seminal 1982 book, By Design, was reissued by Fairchild Books (with revised copy, new art, and an intro by Paola Antonelli), and this month, a collection of his short essays—many of them pub-letters and columns from various design magazines—will hit the shelves. (For readers who missed our "double issue" extravaganza on By Design, check it out here—complete with interview, designer testimonials, before-and-afters, and an excerpt from the book.)
Spanning 45 years of design observation and insight (the earliest entry is from 1960), Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and its Side Effects, is a veritable (and venerable) "what's what" of design observance and insight. Caplan's columns were always the first-reads in their respective magazines (what Time Magazine's "People Page" used to be until they wised up and made it its own monster), but whether you caught him at "Peripheral Vision" in Print, "Circumstantial Evidence" and "Counterpoint" in I.D. Magazine, or currently on the web at "Noah's Archive" on AIGA's Voice, you can now have some of the best of his writing in a convenient, pocketable tome.
Deliciously applicable to almost everything almost everywhere, the design process is inclusive to the point of nondefinition. —from the preface: Peripheral Vision
The book is divided into 5 sections, with a thoughtful intro to each: Identiy Crises; Object Lessons; For Sale; Being There; and Now and Then and Next. But that's probably not the way you're going to read the thing; this is one of those books that you invites you to riffle to a random spot and dive right in.
And we mean, right in. If brevity is the soul of wit, Caplan is master of both. Each of the short essays in Cracking the Whip starts out so elegantly that we thought it would be interesting to take the first bits—the leads—and share them with you here. But the problem is that it was both hard to choose and hard to make any progress. If you read the first paragraph, you're invariably sucked into the whole thing. Heck, even his first sentences deliver the goods. How's this one, from a Circumstantial Evidence column, dated Jan/Feb 1988: "I have never seen a mortician who did not enjoy his work or a mover who did."
Or here's one of my favorite first paragraphs, from a piece published in Canadian Art, entitled "Cars as Collage" (weirdly coincidental as it was published the year—and month!—of the day I was born. And, I'm Canadian!): "Unquestionably car design is the most widely discussed design of modern times, and without doubt this is because it is the most conspicuously designed. All designers like to think that their contribution determines the success of a product, but only automotive designers know that theirs does. (This has not necessarily enhanced the designer's perceived significance)."
It's this kind of no-holds-barred candor wrapped in a subversive riff that makes one think of comedy and comedians. (Indeed, Caplan was a stand-up comic for a year overseas in the Armed Forces.) And they've got a few things in common: Brutal efficiency, effortless appearance, and unfailing sympathy. Milton Glaser nails it in the last paragraph of his foreword to the book: "At heart Caplan is a moralist, who understands that the subject of 'design' permits him to write about anything from an ethical point of view. He writes as though he believes that there is no such thing as popular culture, only culture itself."
Below then are an assorment of 6 starts from essays in Cracking the Whip. Take a taste, then buy the book. Or as Caplan might have constructed that sentence, "A sampler plate may whet your appetite, albeit at the risk of filling you up."
|6 leads from Cracking the Whip|
MoMA and TruValue
ID: Circumstantial Evidence
I can't fix anything and almost never try to. Since this disciplined abstention limits my need for tools, you might expect it to limit my interest in hardware stores as well. It doesn't. Hardware stores rank with bookstores and bed as environments of choice, and I spend time in them every chance I get. As design experiences they are almost invariably superior to the kind of shops that used to be called "good design stores" and are now simply called "design stores." I admire shops like Moss, and the showroom and catalog merchandiser Design Within Reach, but for pleasurable encounters with product design they don't match TruValue.
Disabled by Design
The term Universal Design is used to describe design that is accessible to people with disabilities, but that includes most of us sooner or later. Despite plastic surgery, Botox, and Canyon Ranch, there is at present only one known alternative to getting old.
Notes on Attention: Herman Miller
Designers complain that people who are truly unable to see are required to make decisions based upon visual information. Well, tough. The rest of us struggle with people who do not know how to listen but are required to make decisions based upon what is said. The inability to see and to listen really are aspects of the same problem-and the problem doesn't stop with seeing and listening.
PRINT: Peripheral Vision
Victor Papanek declined to patent his designs, explaining "I feel that ideas are plentiful and cheap, and it is wrong to make money off the needs of others." I don't know how money is ever made except off the needs (real or imagined) of others, but the issue here is not money but the rights to what it can not entirely buy.
ID: Circumstantial Evidence
J. Bronowski, the scientist who wrote The Ascent of Man, remarked that "A knife and fork are not merely utensils for eating. They are utensils for eating in a society in which eating is done with a knife and fork. And that is a special kind of society." Design, in other words, is an expression of culture. And since most of the design in our lives is produced by corporations, corporate culture is inevitably reflected in the products we trade in.
ID: Circumstantial Evidence
The lecturing I've done has entailed spending a lot of time in hotels, which turned out to be instructive. It also meant spending time in that curious gray area known as the question period. That was instructive too. There is a pattern to the questions people ask about design. They ask what design is, and what designers do. They ask how to tell good design from bad. They almost never ask what design is for.
Allan Chochinov is a New York-based designer and educator. He is a partner of Core77.