Laiserin's Lemma—Watches Tell More Than Time
Jerry Laiserin

If you have even the slightest interest in Design (with a capital "D"), then run—do not walk, do not pass "GO" or collect $200—I repeat, RUN to the nearest on-line or old-line bookseller and buy a copy of Watches Tell More Than Time by industrial design master educator Del Coates. Subtitled "Product Design, Information, and the Quest for Elegance," this McGraw-Hill title crams more design wisdom into its 250 or so pages than you likely have in your entire library of design references. Among other things, Coates lays out a solid foundation to explain the range of psychological and physiological responses to "good" or "bad" design. He also makes a persuasive argument for a new kind of CAD that will "emerge from a fusion of parametric design technology and expert- or knowledge-based systems."

Coates' thesis is simple: universal and timeless principles of beauty DO exist; they can be derived from innate human responses to information/stimuli; and design can predictably shape those responses to evoke those princples. While the thesis is simple, Coates' exploration of it nimbly jumps from: Santayana on Beauty to Shannon and Weaver on Information Theory; from Suzanne Langer on Mind to Henry Petroski on Engineering; and from Kenneth Boulding on Zeitgeist to Faith Popcorn on, well, Zeitgeist. And it's all done so effortlessly that one hardly notices how much smarter one is becoming simply by following Coates' intellectual odyssey.

Closer to the hearts of LaiserinLetter readers, Coates summons up artificial intelligence theorist Herbert Simon, shape grammarian George Stiny, and interface guru Donald Norman, among others, as back up for his notion that everything that is designed is, in effect, a medium of information. Further, our aesthetic or an-aesthetic response (feeling or un-feeling) directly corresponds to the information communicated through the design medium.

Beyond Coates' concept of "ultimate CAD" (parametric design + expert systems), he also conjures "creative CAD," in which "the computer leverages the designer's capabilities" through its "inherent potential for generating new and unexpected results," and then "culling the winners" via "agents armed with aesthetic rules"—in other words, "computers with good taste."

In Coates' design formulary, "[T]he fact that CAD systems rely basically on cubic curves [or third-degree curves or NURBS, JL] is aesthetically fortuitous because...people tend to prefer them to simpler or more complex curves." This begs the question of computer software's influence on designers and on the design process—the extent that a program's affordances constrain or enable different modes of design expression—a point we'll pursue further in a future Lemma.

No review can do justice to a book of this richness and complexity. It's as provocative and enlightening for technologists and business folk as it is for design professionals. Read it yourself and let me know what you think.

Editor and Publisher, The LaiserinLetter
Analysis, Strategy and Opinion for Technology Leaders in Design Business

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