Why are things the way they are?
March 7, 2016 6:51 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to learn why things are designed the way they are. What are some theories that you know of that have a significant effect on the way things are designed?

After having stumbled upon a copy of Universal Principles of Design, (and devouring it) I read about something called the Cathedral Effect - "The Cathedral effect describes the influence of the perceived height of a ceiling and human thinking, and is (at least in part) a priming effect. High ceilings are known to encourage abstract thinking (creativity) and low ceilings encourage concrete thinking (focus on detail). Most people prefer high ceilings to low ceilings, and the Cathedral effect demonstrates that the environment can impact our approach to problem solving (either enhancing or undermining ability, depending on the nature of the problem to be solved)"Source.

This has opened up my eyes to a hidden world all around me. A few more examples that have fascinated me and are good examples of the types of answers I am looking for are - affordance and the biophilia hypothesis.

Please point me towards sources where I can learn about design, design thinking, usability, perception and how to influence our perception, and just better design. I want to learn about how we interact with our environment and with objects in our lives. Ideally I'd I'd like to learn about theories and how they apply to areas such as architecture, UI, UX, and product design.

As far as sources go, I know of - The Design of Everyday Things, and listen to 99% Invisible. What other design goodness do I need in my life?

Please do not list any heuristics and biases. I'm looking to understand more about how things are designed, and not how we make decisions.

TL;DR - I'd like to learn more about how design influences our choices, and the way we interact with the world.
posted by rippersid to Education (16 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
"Human Factors in Design" was one of my favorite college courses at RPI. Here's a link to the syllabus; you could try tracking down some of the readings.
posted by Kriesa at 7:00 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Victor Papanek's Design for the Real World is also a great read.
posted by Kriesa at 7:05 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Read everything by Edward Tufte.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:20 AM on March 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

For more about designing consumer interactions in retail environments: Paco Underhill (link to an old fpp of mine). William H. (Holly) Whyte and Jane Jacobs on public space. The Project for Public Spaces might also be of interest.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:22 AM on March 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

A Pattern Language, the book.
posted by Skipjack at 9:03 AM on March 7, 2016

Two of my favorite documentaries are perfect for this.
(because who knew a font could be sooo fascinating)
(how consumer objects are designed)
posted by Crystalinne at 10:45 AM on March 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

And to add - there's fascinating history and psychology behind the Helvetica font, it's development, and how it's become the standard for everything around us. If you think a doc about a font is boring you'd be very wrong.
posted by Crystalinne at 10:51 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Here's some fascinating stuff about the design of London Underground stations [huge PDF] that I think you'll like.
posted by emilyw at 11:37 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Artist/goat-man Thomas Thwaites documented his effort to build a toaster from scratch in The Toaster Project. It's fantastic.
posted by generalist at 12:10 PM on March 7, 2016

At a bit of an angle to your question, but you might find this previously of interest: My coffee cup just got much more useful.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:29 PM on March 7, 2016

The Stanford D-School has a lot of Design Thinking resources, including this online crash course. You'd probably love it.
posted by Miko at 6:57 PM on March 7, 2016

The Design of Everyday Things is online; you've looked through the References section, yes?
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:11 PM on March 7, 2016

His books tend to be more historical than theoretical, but you might enjoy the works of Henry Petroski, an engineer who writes about a variety of topics. He's probably best known for his works on failure, but I really like his books The Evolution of Useful Things, The Book on the Bookshelf, and Small Things Considered. He's also written entire books on the pencil and the toothpick. I think he does a really good job of examining how culture, design and engineering come together and how designs, especially of everyday items, are constantly refined and constrained by surprising factors.
posted by clerestory at 8:41 PM on March 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

A few interesting things.

C. Alexander, who has been mentioned before here, had another book called Notes on the Synthesis of Form, which describes design as a constraint satisfaction problem fairly well (see page 38). I also remember a description of a constraint satisfaction in evolution as a hierarchical subproblem solving (the parable of the lamps) which sort of recapitulates the Tempus and Hora parable from H. Simon, in The Sciences of the Arttificial.

Now consider that backpropagation, which is the fundamental algorithmic form by which say, deep learning is done for boring tasks in places like Google today (actually, strange and divergent children of backpropagation, but all of them both using the chain rule and dynamic programming) (I don't know if you consider hessian-free methods and such akin to backpropagation, but I do: the difference is from, say, genetic algorithms, which are not really used) was re-invented by D. Rumelhart et al to poke at constraint satisfaction problems. And that D. Norman, who has been mentioned before here, was in the same lab with those doings. See this. Ain't that spiffy?

Actual constraint satisfaction research is almost entirely in the less theoretical bits of theoretical CS, but it's interesting to see the connections there. Or the connectionists there.
posted by hleehowon at 9:09 PM on March 7, 2016

Oh! How could I forget How We Got to Now, a TV series by the great writer Steven Johnson, whose Ghost Map - all about the solving of the source of London's 19C cholera epidemic and the creation of the modern water system - is also a terrific problem-solving read.
posted by Miko at 8:16 AM on March 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

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