In 2004, Core77 reached out to a dozen design luminaries on what Ralph Caplan's "By Design" meant to their lives and to their practice. Here they are below.
In 1990 I was a hopeful lecturer at UCLA. My course, called "The Nature of Design," was open to the whole campus. In my dreams, geology, political sciences, medicine, and film students would finally see the light, learn to love objects, and acquire a new understanding of the world surrounding them. By Design was the main textbook. It was the one and only text that could convey to a really wide audience the passion that we, the members of the sect, share about design. First and foremost, it was fun. Ralph has taught me the enormous didactic power of fun. Thanks to him, I have converted two or three classes. I am glad that this bible will now be available to schools—and I suggest high schools, while we are at it—all over the wide wide world. The mission is not over.
I learned how to write about design by imitating Ralph Caplan. By Design is everything I admire in design writing: it's clear, accessible and funny. On my best days, I am half as good.
When By Design was first printed I promptly bought a copy for my mother (who still has hers, by the way). Although it was my mother who urged me to become an industrial designer, she said that once she read By Design she finally understood what I did for a living. Ralph has the unique ability to make the mysterious world of the designer accessible to all—I suspect that designers themselves understood what they did better after reading the book—probably in part because his sharply rendered perceptions are presented with the "Caplan" humor and wit that is so much a part of him.
The first time I heard Ralph Caplan speak was when he was invited to Pratt to speak to our graduate class. I remember that though it was a small group, we were rewarded with an hour and a half of true Caplan: knowledge, dry humor, insightfulness, wisdom and charm.
After searching for my long mislaid copy of By Design and re-reading it after 20 years, I realized that I have, in the interval, been unwittingly trying to fulfill the goals of Ralph's wisdom that he laid out so cogently in the first place.
What a lot of time and struggle could have been saved if I had simply made a checklist of objectives patterned after Ralph's insights and proceeded to tick them off as I progressed through life and career.
Paradoxically that may be what did happen, at a subliminal level, because I find that the principles illuminated by Ralph in By Design have been guiding my design direction throughout my career.
The time has never been more ripe for a public dialogue about design. Ralph Caplan's engaging voice is just right to spark and to lead this dialogue. By Design is one of the first books I read after joining the staff of Cooper-Hewitt and I assign it as required reading for all Education Department staff. By Design reminds us of the potential of our work—to make design accessible and meaningful to the broadest audiences possible.
My introduction to Ralph came through a discussion with a designer who had heard Ralph evaluate a chair on its "meaning" rather than on its "looks." This is a heady approach towards criticism, and one that can easily lend itself towards academic intellectualization. Fortunately, Ralph is not an academic. He is, rather, one of the best students of design in the 20th century. By Design is filled with uncommon insights and wit, making it a singular as well as seminal read on design. Its breadth of inquiry makes it valuable for people who like to think, regardless of what they think they know about design. In conversation, Ralph Caplan is one of the most entertaining, insightful and wittiest people I have ever met. By Design is a series of provocative conversations with Ralph covering a range of unlikely topics. My current copy has sixteen dog-eared pages that I constantly refer to when I need a design fix, a quote, or a wake up call. Ralph is an uncommon designer of words and thoughts, and this is one of the design books that helped to define design in the 20th century.
Industrial design has a very short history and few good critics. As a result, most of us still take much of what surrounds—shoes, streets, sandwiches—for granted. Ralph Caplan's By Design will probably change the way you look at your world, rendering it less common. And it will certainly amuse you with thoughts of uncommon brilliance. Designers know this to be one of the seminal books of the 20th century. In this reprinting it will get its deserved larger audience.
Ralph Caplan's writing on the subject of design is always both entertaining and profound. Ralph has a literary voice that is modest and self-effacing but turns out to be incisive and persists in the mind.
Everyone who has read or listened to Ralph Caplan knows he is the most engaging, articulate and insightful of all design commentators and By Design is one of the first books (Rand's Thoughts on Design is another) that changed my way of seeing—and thinking about seeing. Caplan weds anecdotal informality to journalistic acuity, the result being an authoritative overview (and inside analysis) of the everyday (and extraordinary) things that are designed to make life worth living.
Ralph Caplan has been that rarest of creative designers, an articulate one. Way back when most people thought design was solely about things, he was expanding the reach of design into the shaping of context, situations, and the space between things. In other words, he was talking about the design of our virtual world decades before the phrase "virtual world" came into popular use. By stepping back from the palpable immediacy of design, his book also concerned itself with the shape of design itself; its responsibilities and its potential.
These thoughts were instrumental to me when giving birth to a new international design facility. I realized that the enormous complexities of starting a new business, of shaping a new situation, were not time away from creative design, they were an essential dimension of creative design.
Ralph Caplan was a design journalist before anyone thought of design as a beat, and he's ruined the job for everyone who followed. By Design demystified design and made it mysterious all at the same time, teaching people not to presume that objects and graphics fell from the sky or something, but that smart, highly trained people are behind them. It also explained how design makes a huge impact on the way we live and think, which I guess you can call culture. There's not much left for anyone else to do. Plus, you can't talk about Ralph's writing without using clichés because he stole all the good phrases. You have to say things like "polished gems."
When I worked as his assistant and had been archiving his work, Ralph and I happened to discuss the insights of some new design article. Having recently seen the evidence, I reminded Ralph that he had made the same argument as appeared in that contemporary article some ten years earlier. Now, more than ten years after even that conversation, it's all still true: pretty much everything we have to say about design has already been said once by Ralph Caplan.
And it was funnier the first time, too.
In every life there are a few significant events that help transform a career, or a trajectory of thoughts and beliefs. Ralph Caplan was one of those events—both his book, By Design, and the way he introduced me into the hurly-burly world of real designers, real design.
I bought my copy of By Design in June 1986. I was still writing Psychology of Everyday Things and Caplan's book was a revelation—it made me more appreciative of the constraints imposed upon the designer. What a great book, By Design: I loved it at first reading, still love it. I even made a great effort to stay at the Hotel Louis XIV in Paris—alas, the days of shared bathrooms are over, and now the bathroom doors have locks.
Recently, a famous architecture critic wrote, "to speak is human—to listen, divine." Ralph Caplan is one of the few mortals who can claim this divinity. That is why one must obtain By Design, whether lucky enough in life to know him, or alive enough to read his prose.
Ralph's gem could very well be the only masterfully written book about design in the world. It is a book with an old-fashioned literary use in that it can make any audience—not just designers—better for having read it. This is no small feat. As Ralph once explained to me, "unlike murder or romance, the trouble with writing about design is that it doesn't go anywhere or, at least, not to anywhere very exciting."
But to me, chapter seven on Situation Design eerily pre-figures much of what design is still trying to do today. And that is exciting indeed.
I think this was one of the first design books I read (back then they didn't have many design books that had more words than pictures!). On page 178 of my very old copy, it says: "The history of the design professions is largely a history of over qualification, of men and women who have insisted on doing more than either clients or public ever asked for." That's certainly the case of Ralph Caplan too. I can't understand why everyone doesn't want to contribute more than they need to—there is so much that needs to be done—and so little time!
I first read By Design as a college senior as required reading for a design theory class. Caplan's assertion that designing is a system of thinking was first realized then and has been a driving force in my life as a designer ever since.
This point is epitomized through his "6 levels of design" and his declarative chapters on the importance of the Eames's process, thinking and the resulting artifacts. In this book, Caplan captures the essence and core of all that is Eames: the designer's ability to apply logic AND creativity to envision a better future.
By Design is a classic in design discourse that has had a profound affect on my view of the power of design and designers' role in the profession, and indeed the world. I'm excited at the prospect of an updated version of By Design reaching a new generation of designers and thinkers.
When By Design came out, I found it to be the wittiest, most articulate and clear-thinking writing on design I had ever read. I still think so. A few years later I actually got to know Ralph at the Aspen Design Conference, and was further amazed by his ability to give an impromptu speech with the same wit and insight. His background as both a comedian and a boxer serves him well. He seems to select seemingly random and decidedly humorous anecdotes to always circle back and drive home a knock-out point of wisdom at the end.
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