Petroski, Henry. Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

Everything is designed, and we all participate in design choices. There are no perfect designs, but many improvements upon old designs. Throughout the book, Petroski underscores, with many examples, that design involves three elements: choice, constraint and compromise. If there are no perfect designs, then all good designs minimize imperfection.

Chapter 3 offers the history of paper cup, the advent of bottled water and the Brita pitcher. Petroski explores choices by showing what people consider sanitary and fashionable from decade to decade. Choice and compromise are enforced by the tasks or the groups involved in the design. Chapter 4 offers examples using the history of the light bulb, the car interior light, headlights and flashlights. Of interest is the difference between French and American headlight regulatory schemes. Chapter 5 continues with praise and blame for the cup holder in the 1996 Volvo (Volvo designers must be irked to have fallen "victim" to a twitch like Petroski!) and the general difficulty of retro-fitting in very tight design schemes. Design in small spaces continues in Chapter 6 with a review of CD holders, CD jewel boxes, inkjet print cartridges, suitcases and car trunks. Engineers have to "think inside the box" as well as look outside the box.

Chapter 7 looks at human-sized "storage" and service spaces such as stores and supermarkets, banks, restaurants, airports and toll booths. Among many other points about the efficient use of space -- and which line to take at the toll booth -- he argues that commonly used tracking and surveillance devices are no big deal, because only criminals don't want to be "found" and anyway, the mass of data is so big that who could be bothered to wade through all of it? (I have made this argument myself in the past, but it is not really that hard to wade through the data -- and it evades the question of what a citizen can claim as a reasonable expectation of privacy.)

The invention of the paper bag machine is the focus of Chapter 8. Petroski compares the paper and plastic bag - their relative merits and demerits - and also discusses the use of baskets and carts. On a side note, Margaret E. Knight, the most famous 19th century woman inventor, had to defend a paper bag machine patent based upon the challenge that "she could not possibly understand the mechanical complexities of the machine" - a challenge which she won. Petroski moves into the house by examining domestic choices in cooking design, lawn mowing (the fact that he thinks about the patterns he mows, comparing them to those he could have mowed, confirmed that he is really… an engineer) and the addition of Teflon to cooking pans.

Chapter 10, "Folk Design," was a delightful treat: all about duct tape and WD-40. Petroski argues that although these two products are incredibly useful, and allow for inventiveness in all fields, their necessary use also indicates the ubiquity of bad design.

Petroski continues with the hot/cold single faucet invented by Moen, as well as the difficulty of not getting burned or frozen by a strange faucet. He also covers OXO and the Good Grips potato peeler. These examples show how difficult it is to design for multiple users. He adduces industrial and fashion design examples using Steelcase and Aeron chairs, fitted shirts, doorknobs and light switches. Light switches offer a good case of previous design - buttons for gas lighting - dictating current design, and the fact that users do not have much choice in this matter. He cites hotels as particularly confusing. Chapter 14 offers more design choices that are, more or less dictated to us. He shows phone and calculator keypads and tells the story of how each came to be.

Some places foster innovation, although many ideas never get out the door. He mentions a famous book by Renaissance engineer Agostino Ramelli as a long-standing contribution to the "theater of machines." A contemporary example is IDEO and their tech box. We, too, are creative: even something simple like a restaurant meal choice and how to handle the bill is a designed event. Chapter 16 notes the conflicts between old and new designs: the Oral B toothbrush, which fits the hand, and functions more efficiently as a toothbrush, and was tested extensively, does not fit the common toothbrush holder. He also mentions the Great Easter and the Concorde as similar examples. The world had to adjust to fit both, and in both cases, it did not. Chapter 17, although relevant to this topic, seemed a bit self-indulgent: it chronicled his difficulties with an addition to his house.

The final chapter discusses stairs - how they are installed, how they are altered. He gives an unfavorable description of the aesthetically unpleasing new entrance to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. He cites the slogan for the 1933 World's "Century of Progress" Fair, held in the same building: "Science Finds - Industry Applies - Man Conforms." Petroski takes exception. His vision, as it has been through the many examples, is that people are in charge of technology: they design, industry makes, and then science describes.

This is really a fun book, great for any kind of reader, using chiefly illustrations to make very clear points. And its overall thesis is likewise clear. It would have been good to group chapters as well as examples - sometimes it is not clear why one chapter should follow another.