Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Book Review: Everyday Engineering, by Andrew Burroughs + IDEO

At a meager six inches tall by four inches wide, the petite Everyday Engineering doesn't seem to be the most likely candidate to stand out in a bookshelf, but its innovative spine captivates. As is done through the photographs inside, Andrew Burroughs has cut away the side of the book to reveal the construction of the binding. A combination of bundles of brightly colored paper, glue and string, the exposed guts of the book make for a compelling contrast in a sea of bland jacket design where the only other three-dimensionality usually comes from raised type.

Burroughs is an engineer who has worked for IDEO for the last 15 years and currently leads their Chicago office. Everyday Engineering is subtitled "How Engineers See," and Burroughs makes no apologies to designers for his engineering sensibilities. Everyday Engineering contains very little text, instead relying on nearly two-hundred pictures of design details submitted by IDEO employees that explain the hidden world that design details can communicate and laypeople often miss. In a section called "Unseen," for example, a photo of a mundane fire-hydrant perplexes, until paired with the opposite page, which shows uninstalled fire-hydrants on a construction site. In contrast to their usual orientation, these hydrants are jarringly piled sideways, and surprisingly sprout seven feet of straight black tubing from their bases -- a part that's usually buried for few dogs ever to see.

Every photo is interesting in its own way, although some held mysteries too deep for me to discover without peeking in the index for an explanation. There's little doubt, however, that most are photographs that only an engineer could love. Though individual pictures are beautiful, many of the photos within are strikingly unattractive, and not just the one in the section entitled "Ugliness." In some, gaudy colors pop off of the page, while others seem underexposed, dull or out of focus. Composition usually places the subject matter in the dead center of the page, and on top of all that, most of the objects photographed were aesthetically unappealing to begin with. Everyday Engineering does not presage the next Walker Evans of design photography, nor does it mean to. While a few of the pictures can be read as abstract art (particularly those of broken and randomly decaying objects), the overall impression is of quick snapshots taken at the very moment that the little details of the world pass by its lens.

For the primary pages the photos are full bleed and butted next to each other for maximum size. Because the photos were not carefully chosen by an art director, they stand in stark contrast to one another. Their visual disagreement forces the viewer to assess the content of the photo rather than the layout of the page. For all of that and more, I applaud Andrew Burroughs for taking the effort to show the tiny world of design details. In a world of overly pretty coffee table books, this one takes the opposite tack and rewards the reader for following along.


Posted by: Robert Blinn |


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