Allan Chochinov: Let's start at the beginning: How did the reissue of By Design come about? Is this something that you had been thinking about?
Ralph Caplan: Sure, I'd been thinking, but not doing much, about it. By Design went out of print in 1992 when McGraw-Hill (who had bought paperback rights) abruptly closed their trade book division. I talked to two publishers about bringing it back, but one had a policy of not publishing anything that had been in print before and the other—a publisher of large format art and design books—decided it wasn't pictorial enough.
In the meantime I kept fielding inquiries from designers asking—often indignantly, as if they thought I was deliberately withholding it—how they could get the book.
A couple of years ago the Author's Guild launched a program called "Back in Print" through which members could contract to have their books available again on a print-on-demand basis. It made sense to me, but I never got around to arranging it.
One evening last winter I got a call out of the blue, asking if I was the Ralph Caplan who had written By Design. When I pleaded guilty the caller introduced herself as Carolyn Purcell of Fairchild books, which publishes textbooks on interior design. They were interested in publishing a new edition of my book. Was I interested?
"It isn't really an interior design book," I said.
"We know," she said.
"Or a fashion design book."
"We know," she said.
"For that matter," I said, "It isn't a textbook." I said.
"We know," she said. "But it's being used as one."
"I know," I said.
I did know. Over the years when I did speaking gigs, students would come up and tell me they had been assigned photocopies of By Design in their classes. The Fairchild people had found it for sale in the Syracuse University bookstore. Schools sometimes asked for permission (as Syracuse had) to make copies of all or part of the book, but mostly they seem to have followed a policy of don't ask/don't tell, and did neither.
AC: So now we know where to find one! (Most people's copy is with someone they lent it to.) Can you tell us about some of the challenges in going through the book and reworking it? How much of the book is rewritten, and how much is new?
RC: A book written more than 20 years ago becomes "dated" if it has any topical references in it, and this one had a fair number of them. So I agreed to update each chapter, and to write a new one about what's happened between then and now.
Turned out that what had to be changed were not just topical allusions and anachronisms, but an embarrassing amount of careless writing—soft, sloppy passages that had somehow squeaked past the editing process. The trouble with rewriting is that it invariably leads to more rewriting. You notice a little thing that needs fixing. So you fix it, and that screws up something else, which then needs fixing. You discover that a minor change can upset the whole ecology of the paragraph, the page, the chapter. The same kind of thing happens with redesign, doesn't it? Anyway, it was painful fun and the result is a better book. I think. I hope.
How much of it is rewritten? I don't know how to quantify it exactly. I'd say about 30 percent. The new edition has more illustrations than the original, and all but two of them are new. The two I kept are Milton Glaser's sketch of the bathroom in the Hotel Louis XIV, and a photo of my father's butcher shop. There were eight chapters in the original, and now there are nine, the last one dealing with design responses to technological change. It's called "The More Things Change, the More We Stay the Same."
AC: It's interesting that you describe it as the ecology of the written passage. And the interdependencies of ideas and processes you discuss in the book turn out to be the warp and weft of the designer, but the narrative of the thing seems both grounded and floating at the same time. Perhaps that's why the book has appealed to so many different kinds of readers. But did you have a particular audience in mind when you wrote it?
RC: Yes and no. In the introduction I describe it as "a book about design for people who couldn't care less." Then I hedge my bets by saying "it is also a book for people who care too much." I meant both. I did intend it first as a book for a general reader with no understanding of design. But what I wanted to tell that reader was that the design process was applicable to the most serious issues we face, and was therefore too important to ignore. This necessarily meant facing the fact that design in our culture is too seldom applied to the significant issues designers could be dealing with, and that was something to take up with designers themselves.
I suppose if it had been more precisely targeted, By Design might be an easier book to classify. My heart fell when I went to the old Doubleday bookstore on Fifth Avenue and found it displayed with books on color separation! But then my heart had fallen earlier when several publishers rejected the book because it was—honestly, this is what they said—"too technical for our market." I argued that I didn't know enough to write a book that was too technical for any market I could imagine, but they were convinced that design was a subject that could not be presented straight to a lay audience. Two of the publishers who rejected By Design asked if I would consider writing a book for the general reader!
So the book did well with designers, design students, and anyone else who already cared about the subject, and didn't often reach the others I was aiming for. But when it did reach them, they were fascinated by the subject, and surprised to find it relevant to their own interests. I could understand that, since it matched my own experience exactly.
AC: Right. In the first chapter of By Design, you write, "Because we live with goods, how they get designed matters to us all. What should matter even more is that the process by which our goods come into being has some application to social circumstances, and therefore to our lives. It may be hard to see this, because industrial design connotes an arcane, highly technical, narrowly specialized activity. Actually it is, and has to be, the least specialized of professional undertakings, one that laymen invariably find interesting once they see what it involves." And I think that most industrial designers would agree. When you're at a party and someone asks you what you do for work, they glaze over when the term "industrial designer" passes through your lips. But then when you describe it and they start to see that you're more akin to a crazy inventor who gets paid for it, they light up with interest.
In the same chapter though, you also write, "Although I knew hardly anything about industrial design when I stumbled into it, this was not the handicap it might seem. As it turned out, designers did not know much more than I did about the profession they practiced." Do you think that this is still the case? Is it a lack of discourse, or is there something else going on here? Industrial design is an unlicensed, untestable, un-agreed-upon profession of course (right down to educational curricula), so exactly what is the common knowledge base supposed to be?
RC: I love your image of "a crazy inventor who gets paid for it." In fact, one of the characters in By Design, Dr. Schlumbohm, fits that description. I mean "crazy," as I'm sure you do, as a term of endearment and approbation. The inventor of the Chemex coffeemaker, a design icon of the 50's and 60's, Dr. Schlumbohm also held the patent on the Phlebette, a device for holding two halves of a raw potato against the jugular vein, which he claimed cured phlebitis and fostered general good health. I thought of him just yesterday, when I read in The New York Times of a new Japanese treat: rice with ice cream. Schlumbohm had beaten them to it by decades. Lamenting that the Chinese had no desserts, he had invented one for his favorite Cantonese restaurant—hot rice, ice cream, and fresh ginger. It was delicious.
All that is plainly a digression to stall before facing your tough question about my saying designers didn't know much about their profession. No one did. Historically that made perfect sense, since there was hardly any history. Professional design was too new to understand. Look, in 1954 Charlie Whitney, the publisher who started ID, ran into Henry Dreyfuss and said, "Henry, I want you to know we're going to publish a magazine for industrial designers." Dreyfuss said, "That's great. There are 14 of us."
No, I don't think that is still the case exactly, although as you point out it never has become easy to pin down. There is plenty of discourse—try counting the number of design conferences there are. The various organizations and schools have made enormous strides in clarifying and codifying the profession. But as more and more kinds of designers are needed, the practice keeps changing, so the profession may be as elusive as ever.
I wish there were a common knowledge base, but professions that do have one find much of it irrelevant to what their practitioners actually do. People keep telling me they don't know what designers do. Well, I'm not always sure I know what anyone does. I've known a lot of lawyers, but only one of them ever seems to go into a courtroom to argue cases. The others have meetings, I think.
AC: Well, if not a common knowledge then, what about a common mission?
RC: Technically the first criterion of a profession is the common knowledge base you said was missing in design. As generalists, industrial designers may not technically belong to a profession at all. You work your trade across the broad spectrum of human activities—business, social, personal—as do doctors, lawyers, and accountants. But they each bring essentially the same thing to the table, regardless of the meal or the cuisine. A doctor may treat saints and sinners, and is in fact obliged to treat both, but her business is medicine, no matter who the patient is. Similarly, a lawyer who represents Mel Brooks is not in show business, any more than he is in microchips if he handles intellectual property rights for Intel.
Industrial design, though, comes close to the heart of whatever enterprise it is applied to. The designer of cars, cookware, or furniture is directly involved in the creation of what Ford, Copco, or Knoll makes and sells. Without those things, they wouldn't exist.
But perhaps it's in the connection between design and art that all professional design disciplines differ from other professions. We commonly speak of "the art of medicine," acknowledging intuition and sensitivity that go beyond the scientific and rational. The art of design is more literal, for design draws on the material resources of the arts, and designers need the same talents and skills to express their concepts that artists need to express their visions.
My friend Corita, the late teacher, painter, graphic artist, and sometime nun, liked to talk about an island nation whose language had no word for art and didn't need one because, "They just do everything as well as they can." A society like that would not need a design profession. Ours does.
AC: And if design draws on the material resources of the arts, it also deals with the material resources of engineering. You have an unforgettable paragraph in By Design on how we might look from the engineer's perspective: "According to the myth prevailing among engineers, the designer is all gloss, a stylist equipped by temperament and training to do nothing more than frost the bread of life so it can be sold as cake. He is the cowboy, dashing on a palomino, dazzling with rope tricks, addicted to boasting, showing off, and buying tax-deductible drinks for everybody. His guitar attracts the attention of management, but his high-heeled boots are impractical for walking on solid ground." Wow. Do you think these players act differently now? Has there been a shift in balance or character, protocol or practice?
RC: The image is borrowed from "The Farmer and the Cowboy Should be Friends," a thematically pivotal song in Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical, "Oklahoma." Different as they were professionally and temperamentally—"The cowboy likes to chase a cow, the farmer likes to chase a plow "—they complemented each other, and the Oklahoma territory needed them both. Similarly, product development needed both engineers and designers, whether they liked it or not, and still does. But sure, there've been some changes made. Oklahoma has become a state and design has become better established. There are not many practicing cowboys today—cows are no longer chased, but bred into an assembly line that ends at the slaughterhouse. As for farmers, they're less likely to be found plowing the earth than checking hog belly futures on the internet or lobbying for agribusiness subsidies.
The designer-engineer relationship has changed over the years too, although some of the stereotypes linger. The computer, by altering the way both designers and engineers work, may have helped bring the two disciplines together. Mainly, I think the design profession has matured in its understanding of what goes into a product, engineers understand more about what goes beyond a product, and clients are better able to understand both. When I was consulting with an electronics company nervously about to expand its use of designers, the CEO told me, "Our corporate culture says that if what we put into these black boxes works, nothing more needs to be done to them." I doubt a CEO would say that today.
I've been reading Henry Petroski's Small Things Considered, a book that helps clarify these matters. Also, there's probably something to be learned from Niels Diffrient's stubborn insistence on doing the basic engineering himself, then hiring a consulting production engineer to check and refine it.
AC: In one of the most memorable chapters of By Design—"The Design of Possibilities: The Shift from Object to Situation"—you write, "'America was promises,' said Archibald MacLeish. But promises can be broken. To the designers of the nation, America was possibilities. The Declaration of Independence carefully eschewed the promise of happiness, providing only for its pursuit. The framers, ahead of their time in design as in everything else, were concerned with process rather than with end product. Their designs were truly anticipatory, at once describing possibilities and protecting them." As we've moved through a post-industrial age into a place where fictional products can have more emotional resonance than actual ones (witness the WTC memorial competition, or some of the conceptual work of design group Release1), what is the role of promise in design now?
RC: Haven't fictional products always been capable of having more emotional resonance than actual ones? I think of Tom Sawyer's fence, Don Quixote's windmills, Queequeg's harpoon, Holden Caufield's cap, Emma Bovary's jewels, Cinderella's slipper. But your question deserves more than a deflection. The role of promise in design—generally to communicate reasons for wanting a given product and for believing that it will deliver what you want it for—is increasingly obscured by the promises supplied by advertising. While the Declaration of Independence promised only the pursuit of happiness, today we are offered cars, kitchens and blue and purple pills that promise to bring it on.
Conceptual design makes me wonder what non-conceptual design might be—I can't conceive of any. A lot of so-called conceptual design seems aimed at just "shaking people up," but we are already shaken, if not stirred. We don't need design to disturb us unless the disturbance leads to something we do need. Release1 meets that criterion by using design as a vehicle of cultural criticism, which necessarily includes design criticism. One of my favorite projects in that vein is the fabled "Solar Electric Chair" from the 80's. The death penalty is no laughing matter, and some people thought it was a tasteless joke; but I found it pointedly funny in the same way Lenny Bruce was. By applying an environmentally irreproachable technology to a violent and inhumane public act, it empowered authorities to do bad by doing good. It might take at least a hundred years to execute anyone by solar power, but sometimes conceptual design comes so mockingly close to actuality that it is overtaken by it. A charming and hilarious book called 101 Useless Japanese Inventions features Eye Drop Funnel Glasses, designed to guarantee accuracy in getting eye drops into the eyes instead of down the cheek. Around the time the book came out my ophthalmologist showed me an almost identical device that he had patented and was distributing.
AC: You have been a great friend to design—in addition to authoring books on design, you've been the editor of ID Magazine, a director of the International Design Conference in Aspen, and consultant to companies from Herman Miller to IBM, from CBS to the Commission on College Physics. After all these experiences, what has delighted you most?
RC: It's hard to pick a single one, and unreasonable even to try. As an adjunct to the activities you mention, I've done a lot of speaking and I enjoy that, except for moderating panels. In addition to facing hundreds—well, scores—of design audiences, a good part of the consulting I've done has taken the form of talks, seminars, even sales meeting presentations. The payoff is immediate, as it is in teaching and doing standup comedy, two other fields I've tried. With books and articles, you have to wait a long time—maybe forever. The web is different, I guess. I'm about to find out because I'm starting a column for a new online AIGA magazine called Voice.
I've frequently had design offices, rather than industrial corporations, as clients. That's usually been fun, and that's how I got into consulting in the first place. In 1964 Charles Eames asked me to come out to Venice, California for a summer to work on the Eames Office's biggest project at the time—the IBM Pavillion for the World's Fair. I was excited and terrified. I remember showing up at 8:00 in the morning and waiting at the door, shaking with the certainty that I was about to blow my cover. I had been writing about design with putative authority for several years. Now I was about to work in a design office, where in ten minutes everyone could see how useless I was. Charles and Ray put me in a room with pile of papers and photos and told me to begin weaving them into an exhibit called "Scholar's Walk." All day, however, Charles and Glen Fleck kept calling me away to work on, or at least talk about, other parts of the exhibition. At three o'clock the following morning I left the office dead tired, deliriously happy, and wondering how they had ever managed without me. That was a peak experience.
AC: Well, you know what's on the top of our reading list, but what's on the top of yours?
RC: I have about a nine-foot stack. It includes the new Edith Grossman translation of Don Quixote and the gigantic Bauhaus by Hans Wingler. I've been intending for the past three weeks to begin the first, and for the past 30 years to begin the second. But what's actually at the top is Goodnight Gorilla, written and illustrated by Peggy Rathman. It was the first book I read to our granddaughter Rachel, and the arrival at 2:30 this morning of our grandson Noah gives me an excuse to read it again. It should be a snap. I already know the story.