Oprah Time: The evolution of useful things by Henry Petroski

Reading Time: < 1 minute

The evolution of useful things is a book about innovation and product design by engineering professor Henry Petroski. Petroski covers the history of how different products have evolved from cutlery, pins, paper clips and McDonald’s food packaging.

The key hypothesis of Petroski’s book is that irritation is the mother-of-invention. One particular example that I liked was McDonalds’ packaging. In the early 1970s they had a complex packaging for the Big Mac of a paper box inside was the burger wrapped in foil and with a paper collar around the outside to hold it all in a nice shape.

Styrofoam shells were ironically used to replace this complex paper and foil packaging for environmental reasons. The styrofoam was unfortunately made using CFC gases which became a focus of environmental protest in the late 1970s and 80s, encouraging a move back to paper-based packaging. Intimately woven into this move in packaging was the organisations corporate reputation and public relations activity.

Petroski’s work is a well-researched, indepth look at design, it is not however the most accessible book. Indeed it has taken me the best part of a month to read it. I found myself dipping in and out of it; including my flight to-and-from Hong Kong.