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Freshmen to learn design techniques

By Naomi Strubel

The incoming freshman class will be sent a copy of The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald A. Norman '57, in a continuation of the freshman book discussion project which began four years ago.

The book discussion was introduced into Residence/Orientation Week to "increase the interaction between faculty and new students, and also to introduce [students] to the intellectual side of life at MIT during R/O," said Moya Verzhbinsky, advisor to orientation in the Undergraduate Academic Support Office.

Another goal is to "balance the `R' and `O' of R/O," said Travis R. Merritt, associate dean for student affairs. The residence aspect tends to eclipse the academic orientation for many students, he added.

Faculty interest in the freshman book, especially from the School of Engineering, "has increased dramatically over previous years because it's a topic they feel comfortable with," added Verzhbinsky. The book, however, is intended to appeal to all freshmen, not only prospective engineers.

Cryptic showers

and invisible doorknobs

The book examines design flaws in common articles and argues that when form takes precedence over function, artistic -- but irritating or useless -- products often result.

Norman uses real-life examples to illustrate his point. He describes the glass door to a posh hotel that is striking, but gives no clue as to how it opens. The book also suggests that showers should not need complicated instructions explaining how to use them. Understanding "the interface between product designer and user is important at MIT," because MIT produces so many designers, Verzhbinsky said.

Woodie C. Flowers SM '73, father of the Introduction to Design (2.70) class and contest, will begin the program on Aug. 31 with a lecture on what makes a design good or bad. Afterward, armed with Polaroid cameras, paper, magic markers, and a campus map, freshmen will have three hours to locate something "ill designed, poorly planned, or left undone" on campus, Merritt said. Since freshman will be new to campus, they will be more likely to notice flaws to which others have grown accustomed, he added.

They will return to a central location "with photo documentation, a tersely worded study of the difficulty or problem, and some suggestions as to how to fix it," Merritt said. There may be prizes for the most perceptive entry, or most feasible or silliest solutions.

Book night will be Sept. 6. Students will attend a discussion with the author, a popular professor at the University of California at San Diego, and then join discussions with their living groups. The program is supported by the faculty and administration, and will continue as long as there is sufficient funding.

Program began in 1987

The Class of 1991 was the first to participate in the book night program. During their R/O Week, students discussed The Machine in the Garden, by Professor Leo Marx. This initiated the freshman book discussion program with the theme of man's conflict with nature and technology. Beloved, by Toni Morrison, a Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction detailing the post-Civil War black experience, was discussed by the Class of 1992.

Last year freshmen received Jonathan Kozol's Rachel and Her Children, which examined the problem of homelessness in America. This was the first book sent to international students.