Design and Truth

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“If good design tells the truth,” writes Robert Grudin in this path-breaking book on esthetics and authority, “poor design  tells a lie,  a lie usually related . . . to the  getting or  abusing of power.”

From the ornate cathedrals of Renaissance Europe to the much-maligned Ford Edsel of the late 1950s, all products of human design communicate much more than their mere intended functions. Design holds both psychological and moral power over us, and these forces may be manipulated, however subtly, to surprising effect. In an argument that touches upon subjects as seemingly unrelated as the Japanese tea ceremony, Italian mannerist painting, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation, Grudin turns his attention to the role of design in our daily lives, focusing especially on how political and economic powers impress themselves on us through the built environment.

Although architects and designers will find valuable insights here, Grudin’s intended audience is not exclusively the trained expert but all those who use designs and live within them every day.

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Editorial Reviews

International Herald Tribune

“At a time when ethics and integrity are increasingly important in design, Grudin’s perspective is particularly interesting. . . . To him, design is--or should be--joyous, inclusive and empowering, ‘an erotic pragmatism’ which is ‘fundamental to the survival of our humanity.’ ”--Alice Rawsthorn, International Herald Tribune

— Alice Rawsthorn

Design And Truth [is] a very good book. . . . It proves that the Golden Age of science and philosophic writing may not have yet crested. Get it, read it, and indulge the times.”--Dan Schneider,

— Dan Schneider

Qompendium Magazine

“A must-read book.”--Qompendium Magazine, featured book

Publishers Weekly
The faddish exaltation of design as an all-encompassing force reaches an apogee in this scattershot manifesto. English prof Grudin (Book) discusses a hodgepodge of phenomena as exemplars of good or bad design, including St. Peter's Basilica, Edsel automobiles, Microsoft Word, Heidegger's philosophy, human liberty, and a Velcro doohickey he rigged up to fix his TV remote. Grudin has a cosmic conception of his subject (“the entire universe is a knowledge design”) and draws correspondingly vast conclusions that go beyond engineering and aesthetics into morality and politics: good design, he contends, expresses honesty and integrity, while bad design embodies falsehood, corruption, and abusive power. Unfortunately, these notions get lost in a rambling text that jumbles together perceptive criticism (the artist Christo's installations were “a massive multiplication of banalities”) with self-help exhortations and leadership bromides (“corporate activity on all levels should be value-driven”). There's little payoff to Grudin's inflation of design into a theory of everything beyond abstractions (“The energy field created by a given design is situated within the larger energy that is the marketplace”) and clunky analogies (“The U. S. Constitution is the design equivalent of the Jaguar XKE”). The result is a promising but ill-designed treatise. Photos. (May)
The Barnes & Noble Review

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.

-- Mandy Brown

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300161403
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 4/20/2010
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 956,198
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Grudin is professor emeritus in the English Department at the University of Oregon. His Book: A Novel was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in Literature. He lives in Berkeley, CA.

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