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Toothpicks and Logos

John Heskett

Design in Everyday Life

(Oxford University Press)

“After all, it is STYLE alone by which posterity will judge of a great work, for an author can have nothing truly his own but his style.”
— Isaac D’Israeli, Literary Miscellanies


In the last decade, there has been a resurgence of interest in design. With increasing ubiquity of visual form, combined with a wider selection of models catering to an increasing numbers of niche markets, rolled with more expedient income, and you’ve got a whole new generation of cool.


The future is one of sleek lines and technological advancement, as we have seen through the lenses of film directors and future theorists in movies such as A.I. and The Matrix. Even now, the effort of owning an Eames chair or a Philippe Starck design can be done by picking up the telephone, clicking on your mouse, and charging it to your credit card.


John Heskett’s book Toothpicks and Logos: Design in Everyday Life conveys the theory that almost nothing in our environment is completely natural. Our grass is cut, our trees are planted and pruned, boundaries and plans are drawn on the earth itself. Even water is directed through series of complicated systems of pipes. We live in a world that is infiltrated by new interfaces and forms that strive to be effective, ergonomic, and aesthetically pleasing.


Design is central to the human experience. Heskett defines it “as the human capacity to shape and make our environment in ways without precedent in nature, to serve our needs and give meaning to our lives”. And this is what he does throughout the book—illustrating how the forms of objects, environments, systems, identities, etc., correlate with cultural, global, and human behaviour and values.


The design process is seen as layering - “Not just a process of accumulation or aggregation, but a dynamic interaction in which each new innovative stage changes the role, significance and function of what survives.”


Toothpicks and Logos is structured to tackle important facets of the design process itself. Heskett uses recognisable modern examples and illustrations to convey the continuing dynamism of this art. This approach is really effective when driving the point home that design is running in the veins of our urban system. Heskett uses examples from across the globe, spouting names like TBWA/Chiat/Day, British Airlines, IKEA, Braun, and Motorola.


Heskett approaches objects as products of individual personality and corporate design, and then explores the assimilation and acceptance of these products by the consumer. He explains the reasons behind the evolution of design, and connects it with the public’s interpretations on the designers’ original intention. “Significance, as a concept in design?[is]? how forms assume meaning in the ways they are used, or the roles and meaning assigned them, often becoming powerful symbols or icons in patterns of habit and ritual.”


And so it goes. Toothpicks and Logos travels through two-dimensional material, electronic typefaces, environments, identities, the problems and challenges posed on global designs, and factors that need consideration if efficient communication is to be achieved. Heskett reinforces the idea that “design [is] not only concepts but also about implementation and by what means we can evaluate their effects or benefit”.


I want to say that Toothpicks and Logos is one of the best books available on design today, but my reading hasn’t encompassed enough design literature for me to be able to make that statement. However, as a reader and culture-vulture, one could say that Heskett has written a book that captures design in the most fascinating way and introduces us into a literal understanding of design in everyday life. Heskett is a writer that takes you to a point of perception where design is no more just an art form or industry left to technical and conceptual artists, but rather a universal character that has infiltrated the entire human experience.


The book ends with a chapter entitled “Future”, for that is what all designs strive toward. All new inventions and models being with ideas of the probable. Heskett touches on the emergence of mass production and new technology, acknowledging that “more elaborate techniques and methodologies will undoubtedly emerge”. With this, he puts forward a vital question, the axis of his entire book:


“Will the future pattern of what is produced, and why, continue to be primarily determined by commercial companies, with designers identifying with their values; or by users, with designers and corporations serving their needs?”


With free-market ideology battling the dominant powers of capitalism, globalisation, increasing world population and poverty, the future role of design can be debated. What would be ideal, Heskett stipulates, would be that “the outcomes of design processes, the end result, should not be the central concern of the study and understanding of design, but rather the end result should be considered in terms of an interplay between designers’ intentions and users’ needs and perceptions”.

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