- Sixty years ago, Penguin published a series of book titled The Things We See. The jacket notes:
- The aim of the authors in this series is to encourage us to look at the objects of everyday life with fresh and critical eyes. Thus while increasing our own daily pleasure we also become better able to create suroundings which will give us permanent pleasure. To achieve this in the furnishing and the equipment of our homes, we must buy with discrimination and so prove to designers, who set the machines to work, that we are no longer bound by habit or indifference to accept whatever is offered.
Books in the series covered Houses, Furniture, Pottery and Glass, Public Transport, and Ships. They were exquisitely designed, set, produced and printed, with rotogravure plates. My favourite is Ships, by David Pye. His philosophy of design is well put, and bears applying to type, so I will quote him at length:
Just as a style can become too much for the designer, so also can functional requirements. Indeed it is perfectly possible for requirements to be so intractable that a designer has the utmost difficulty in finding any satisfactory compromise which will meet them. Too little freedom of choice can be as fatal to good design as too much--more fatal in fact, because designers of outstanding ability can put up with a great deal of freedom, but even they are helpless with none at all. It may be no fault of the designer's that a ship looks badly designed: it is his misfortune always to be judged by results: the public at large are not to know that he may have been asked to put a quart into a pint pot--nor that he may have almost succeeded!
There are probably some types of ship which are incapable of being made to take the eye, and anyone criticising a ship's design or her designer should remember this. Only an expert will be able to judge whether the designer's problem could be solved; and if so, whether he has solved it well.
To appreciate the beauty of good design, on the other hand, requires no expert knowledge; but it is one thing to appreciate it and quite another to explain what it is, how it is recognised and understood. The designer himself cannot explain the quality of his design. He arrives at a good design by choosing one set of shapes in preference to another, but he may be too much preoccupied with meeting requirements to be conscious that he is doing so; and even if he is conscious of choosing, he will not be able to give any real explanation of the mental process that decides his choice; for just as the mental process of logical reasoning can find expression in words but not in the notes of music, so can the mental process of designing find expression only in shapes but not in words. It is impossible to give a reasoned explanation of the beauty of design, simply because it is not the product of logical reasoning but of a different kind of thought. Looking at good design will help to understand it more than reasoning about it--or than reading about it. The illustrations will speak for themselves better than I can speak for them.
There are qualities of good design which can be described; but it is not possible to point to a beautiful ship and a commonplace one and to say, "this one is beautiful because she has a pronounced sheer, which the other has not; or because she has a rounded front to the bridge, or a raking stem, or a flaring bow." A ship may have all these things and be ugly, or none of them and still be beautiful.
(Nice use of lining and oldstyle figures in the captions.)