In 1982, Ralph Caplan's By Design entered the pantheon of beloved books on design. An instant classic, By Design talked up to its audience, down to mediocrity, and across topics from graphic, situation and industrial design to humanism, rationality and need.
One of the seminal works on design and design process, its arguments were so thoughtful, well-constructed, and articulate that the difference between design discourse and common sense was rendered invisible; Caplan revealed the wonder of both the lightning and the bottle, how the bottle came to be, and how the lightning came to be captured. And in its lively readability, the book served design practitioner, design enthusiast, and clueless design client all at the same time.
The package itself was irresistible, too: the paperback is a slim, unintimidating 6-by-9 inch and 5/16"-thick (fitting nicely on a bookshelf next to Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House). Its cover, designed by Milton Glaser, is a true classic, and its subtitle, "Why there are no locks on the bathroom doors in the Hotel Louis XIV and other object lessons," is a cover teaser that actually gets paid off in a thrilling design conundrum. (You'll have to read the book to learn the trick.)
Rereading By Design now is like having lunch with an old friend from years past: you're nervous about how it will look (and, reflexively, about how you'll look); the air, giddy with possibility, swirls 'round while you find your seat; lunch arrives and you're too engrossed in conversation to notice; and when you're still drinking in the fun, the restaurant clears out, the waiter brings the check (Chapter 9), and you can't believe it's time to go home. But the two of you picked up right where you left off, and as the old saying goes, it was just like going home.
And if the nostalgia isn't enough for you, you can throw in some consensual validation: while you're reading his words, it's hard not to shake your head in full agreement with everything that Caplan says (um, writes—I guess we're not really at lunch after all) and find yourself questioning whether his feelings about design reflect your very own, or whether he had some wise, avuncular influence on them from your first go-around together. No matter. Ralph Caplan's By Design is one of the most cogent pieces of writing on the topic, and a revelation to anyone who's interested in how and why things are how and why they are. The world of design has become a more enlightened, empathetic place to anyone who has traveled its pages.
Though out of print since 1992, By Design has lived on in many forms: enthusiastic design professors have made countless not-so-clandestine photocopies and distributed them to their design students, design practitioners have passed them to clients and potential clients in the hopes of making sense to each other, and, of course, there are the many copies crossing the far reaches of the internet (a current paperback copy fetches $35.50 on half.com--original cover price: $6.95).
This fall, Fairchild Books will reissue By Design in a new edition, revised by Ralph Caplan with a new chapter, new art and a forward by Paola Antonelli. So on its 22nd birthday and in preparation for its next big turn, Core77 takes a look at the first book on everyone's reading list, by design.
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