Make no mistake, the "deconstruction" in the new book Deconstructing Product Design owes as much to Derrida as it does to David Macauley. William Lidwell and Gerry Manacsa take 100 (mostly) iconic products and hold them up to the scrutiny of a panel of modern design thinkers. For a hard-core industrial designer, deconstruction as disassembly might have been more interesting than deconstruction as critical analysis. Although it could have revealed some hidden engineering mysteries, our desire to see Segways in pieces and Tickle Me Elmo eviscerated may have to wait for another book.
Instead of laying waste to products with screwdrivers and crowbars, a wide range of occasionally famous, sometimes beautiful and frequently innovative products are subjected to the verbal barbs and jabs of unexpectedly-funny designers and engineers. In a very brief introduction the authors explain their criteria for choosing the 100 products they included: (1) does the product exemplify good design in at least one respect, and (2) does the product illustrate at least one key principle of design? Perhaps the best articulated spread of the book comes next, a two-page overview of the pages to come, complete with thumbnail text, picture frames and notes which provides a framework for understanding the product pages without resorting to a long-winded explanation.
The bulk of the book consists of 200 pages of product photography and accompanying analysis. Each product is shot against a white background and so evenly-lit as to suggest a rendering rather than a photo. For some objects, such as the LC4 Chaise Lounge and the Pot-in-Pot cooler, the funny textures suggest rendering, while for others, such as Elmo himself, the red fur seems naturalistic enough to have been photographed. Rather than glossy product photography, however, the images serve only to remind the viewer of the form factors of already familiar objects. Far more interesting is the historical background and analysis provided by the authors (e.g. early prototypes of Apple's mouse used the ball from a stick of Ban Roll-On deodorant) and reading the color commentary from design thinkers (and Core77 contributors!) such as interaction designer Jon Kolko, product designer Scott Henderson and design researcher Steve Portigal. Across the bottom of each spread a variety of experts weigh in on the product with an assortment of critical commentary, fond reminiscence and occasional bursts of humor. This reviewer's favorite comment was from Lyle Sander, and experience designer, who noted that it would be "unsportsmanlike to order pizza" with the sculpturally phallic BeoCom2 phone.
Since each product contains general copy text from the authors along with qualitative commentary from a group of experts, there are bound to be some contentious calls. Dieter Rams' Braun SK4 phonograph's form factor is dissed as follows: "the phonographic grill set is left aligned with the phonographic grouping, but the grills do not extend sufficiently to right to right align with the right edge of the gray surround. Continuity and integrity are broken." Design blasphemy? Perhaps. This reviewer feels that the contrast between the alignment of the phonograph components and the speaker grill creates a tension that would be undermined by precise alignment. Since only a microcosm of the book buying public could possibly care about how the tension between forms in manufactured products could be resolved, Deconstructing Product Design fills a strange void. However unlikely it may seem that a book about the minutia of product design could captivate, the capacity to have a strong opinion is as human as the desire to make and use products themselves. While I never imagined that product design would have a sounding board to rival the judges of American Idol, Deconstructing Product Design provides exactly such a chorus. So while Tickle Me Elmo himself is lavished with product love worthy of Paula Abdul, the oversexed and strangely hydrocephalic-headed Bratz dolls spark diverse criticism and discussion. As a writer for a design blog, critiquing a book that brings together disparate voices critiquing products is (a) rather meta, and (b) totally hypocritical, but the remarkable thing about observing the way culture is observed is that it rarely fails to entertain.
While we're not sure having designers read a book about designers talking about design is necessarily a good thing, there is one more facet of product analysis that needs to be tackled before we get to the meat of what Deconstructing Product Design aims to accomplish. Beneath each object is a matrix that aims to compare on an "apples to apples" basis, each product's aesthetics, function, usability, sustainability and commercial success. Contention here is even defined by ordinal rankings. Why, for example is the classic Atari rubber joystick given one sustainability star, while the modern BeoCom 2 phone is given the highest rating of four stars? I suspect if we disassembled them rather than deconstructed them, we'd see a lot of similar parts. Plastic, metal printed circuit boards, maybe some toxic metals. Certainly since it's more complex, there would be more components in the BeoCom2, along with difficult to dispose rechargeable batteries, but without insight into the rating system, it's a little hard to judge. Accompanying the book is a website where users can add their own thoughts and analysis. Perhaps we'll learn what drove the ratings there in the future.
The deeper question hidden in the book regards its target audience. As product designers, Deconstructing Product Design offers few truly new insights, but does provide ample opportunity to rehash old discussions, and perhaps to view a few oddball products with new eyes. At the very least, it's refreshing to see a book that invariably includes a lot of Apple products, but also examines new functional products like Stanley's HurriQuake Nails and reaches way back to laud nearly perfect designs like the Crescent Adjustable Wrench. Rather than serve the already opinionated design constituency, however, perhaps it better serves non-designers who seek to, as the authors state, discover "patterns of success (and failure) across products." While the authors do not directly resolve the answer to the question of what makes a product successful, their book provides a platform for everyone from executives to end-users to begin to ask the sorts of questions that experience designers, interaction designers and human factors practitioners ask every day. Whether the average end user has strong opinions about the speaker grill of Dieter Ram's SK4 remains unresolved, but if they did, that would be fodder for a reality show we might tune in for.
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