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The human hand is our most sensitive apparatus for receiving information about the world. With our fingertips, and the hundreds of sensors therein, we can perceive the warmth or coolness of metal or locate objects in the space around us. We can test the soundness of a structure or find pleasure in the hand of a fabric. An object with a smooth, sculpted shape that fits the hand invites interaction or deployment. The welting of upholstery pleases the eye and draws the hand to confirm the visual message of quality. In the same way, the on/ off switch of a task lamp—a detail key to its proper function—may have a particular shape, color and size. But another level of detail emerges at the moment one presses the switch. Is the surface rough or smooth? Does the switch feel flimsy or sturdy? Does the feel of the switch aid or hinder its operation? Details inspire or inhibit engagement with our work tools. They alter the quality of our interaction with the knobs and levers on a task chair, the pulls on a desk drawer or the keyboard of our laptop.

Touch as a detail of design is often intimately related to sound, with the perception of sound being contingent on an initial performance of touch—the pressure of the hand to activate a switch or close a drawer, the tapping of the fingertips on the keypad or mouse. Of course, we are surrounded by sound at all times. It is the ambient background of our lives at work, in the street, in the shops. But objects, when encountered, maneuvered or manipulated—that is, touched—also make sounds that may fall almost beneath the threshold of awareness, yet still affect the way we feel or behave.

Touch and sound tell us a great deal about the quality of design. The whisper of your desk drawer as it glides open is a detail that suggests the nature of its construction—quite different than if the drawer rattles or sticks when pulled or pushed. The same is true of a table or chair poised on casters. Does the table roll smoothly across the floor? Does the chair slide easily into place? Or, does our touch reveal a flaw in design or execution? Does sound or the absence of sound call attention to clever mechanics and well-made details? The muffled click of a cabinet door when it is pressed shut reassures us that the door is secure. The “ka-chunk” of a stapler tells us that a job has been done. Touch and sound communicate—often making the difference between an object that functions as it was meant to and one that does not, between a tool that is a pleasure to use and one that fails to fulfill its promise.


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There are as many ways to write about design as there are ways to practice it. We can describe, analyze, compare, judge and classify; propose theories about creativity, form and social function. We can characterize design as a language or a way of thinking. Or, we can consider one key aspect of design, the detail. For while a detail may be small in scale—a button, a stitch, a latch, a molding—the subject is not a trivial one. The design detail carries larger concepts no matter its size. It may be less encompassing than the whole, but its meaning is not less deep. Detail makes design not only intelligible, but also memorable and meaningful. Download No Detail Is Small and explore it in detail.

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