Design Thursday: Everyday Engineering from IDEO

While the celebration of all things hip and happening in the design world continues next week with New York's Design Happening—seven days of events that will find the editor of House & Garden magazine primping in a window of Crate & Barrel—let us pause to consider the invisible men and women who bring function to form: the engineers.

Often ignored, usually misread, and typically portrayed as pencil-necked, near-sighted geeks bearing calculators and permanent frowns, engineers are practitioners of a "crucial but very quiet profession," as IDEO's Andrew Burroughs so aptly puts it. Despite the engineering marvel that is the paper clip or the Golden Gate Bridge, these days, engineers seem only to draw the spotlight when a tunnel cracks or a passenger jet crashes. Who are these people, these engineers? Through what lens do they view the world, and what do they make of it? And from where do they draw the insight and inspiration to create something as precise as the fit between a bolt and a nut—or as adaptable as duct tape?

In his appropriately humble yet compelling handbook, titled Everyday Engineering, Burroughs gets us inside the engineer's head and shows us the world through the engineer's eyes. Published this month by Chronicle Books, Everyday Engineering is comprised of snapshots of mundane objects—egg cartons and door handles, manhole covers and bicycle seats—that tell stories about how the world works. The accompanying text does not seek to answer questions; it simply pushes us to be more inquisitive—to see the value in seeing more deeply. To wit:

"Looking back at the life of a building allows us to see the weakest part of the structure—and to gain information that will be extremely useful when the next one is constructed. Perhaps we can discover a point of failure that is completely counterintuitive, as when corrosion aggressively attacks the most protected part of a steel beam."

Burroughs organizes the book into two sections: "Creation" displays images that show how ubiquitous objects do their jobs—and reveals some of the thinking that went into solving diabolically difficult problems. "Degradation" shows the unforeseen results when objects are sent out into the world and ultimately misused and corroded—but also "worn in sometimes pleasing ways." Taken together, the two sections amount to an eye-opening guide for becoming better observers and for better understanding the contributions of engineers, which are often unapparent—and intentionally so. After all, writes Burroughs, "it is our job to deliver an experience or an end result as seamlessly as possible."

While the nation's D schools are brimming at full capacity, the American Society of Engineering Education reports that over the past two years, the annual growth in engineering degrees has fallen to less than one percent. Perhaps this book, by helping people see how engineers see, will improve that sorry statistic.

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