Design and Truth

Early in Design and Truth, Robert Grudin retells an event from his youth. Driving his motorcyle at the Palais du Louvre in Paris, Grudin made a left turn and slammed into the back of a car that had unceremoniously parked in the lane. The car was wrecked, but Grudin and his passenger — who was flung over the hood — walked away without injury. Moreover, the motorcycle was largely unharmed. Grudin argues this was no accident:

Consider the two vehicles. The motorcycle was a 1956 Norton Dominator 99, prince of British bikes. It was solidly built and finely balanced. Its aerodynamic design whispered of a clear day, an empty road, and the rush of air. . . . The car was a Citroën Deux Chevaux, the French equivalent of a Volkswagen bug, but so ungainly that it made the bug look like a Lotus by comparison. The Deux Chevaux was built of light components for marketability and economy. Performance, comfort, beauty, and security were not its design priorities.

In other words, the Norton was designed to care for its passengers (and succeeded in doing so) while the Deux Chevaux was designed only to be cheap. This marks the difference between design that tells a truth and design that tells a lie: the former is honest about its relationship with its environment, while the latter only pretends to be. It’s the difference between a design in harmony with its function and one that claims no real function at all.

Here, Grudin acclaims the oft-held view that the best design is user-centered. But he takes this a step further and argues that when design goes amiss, it is “usually related, in one way or another, to the getting and abusing of power.” Meaning, the lie that poor design tells is not merely careless, but often the result of greed, ambition, or authority run amok.

At his most compelling, Grudin examines the design of the World Trade Center and creates a narrative of its construction that shows just how the lie came to be. Compelled by various authorities to maximize rentable space, Yamasaki — the project’s architect — removed stairwells, pushed the support structures to the buildings’ hulls, and enlarged the towers until they became a grotesque offense on the skyline. Each of these design decisions exclaimed the priorities of greed over the people who would live and die in its space. It was not foolishness or ignorance that made the Twin Towers susceptible to attack, but rather an express desire to value profit over humanity that invited their destruction.

What emerges from this discussion and others — ranging in subject from a velcro-inspired repair of a TV remote to the design of Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica — is a vision of an ethical design, that is, a design that honestly approaches its environment and endeavors not to compete with it but to cooperate. As such, it is essentially an ecocritical approach — one that awards success or failure (truth or falsehood) upon a design by evaluating its sustainability and respect for the user. By approaching the physical artifacts of society rather than the literary ones, Grudin attempts a criticism that is more tactile and immediate.

Alas, when Grudin expands this ecology from building and bike to knowledge and liberty, the text loses its footing; what began as an already expansive definition of design stretches so far as to become meaningless. The process by which knowledge is designed cannot be said to have much in common with that of the design of a car or a TV remote. Yet despite the book’s haphazardness, Grudin’s call for a moral design holds appeal, inasmuch as it claims that user-centered design is the only kind of design that keeps us honest. Anything else is a lie.