Teardown: Appreciating Design by Taking Things Apart

Image from James May: The Reassembler. Imbd/ BBC Four

Think about it for a second. From the moment we wake up until we sleep again, we interact with so many objects that it seems ridiculous to think that these seemingly arbitrary objects have any value worth a second look. At a glance, the objects we use and interact with daily seem to feel “Un-designed” as Jony Ive puts it; because simply, of course it would be that way, why would it be any other way?

Take a peek at the other side and we soon see a different scenario. Piles of paper stacked in a trash can, a collection of plastic blocks with all sorts of shapes and sizes, spreadsheet after spreadsheet of collected data. Enter the designer’s space: a collection of intricate and (supposedly) systematic process of making the very objects we see and use every day! Of course, with how much objects we use and how often we do, it usually diminishes taking a look at the designer’s head and realize just how much was given to it.

Pause and Glance

The smartphone has been one of the ubiquitous objects on the Planet, and yet very few truly understand how it works. Freepik

Let’s do a little experiment. As you read this article, be it on a laptop, a desktop or a phone, pause and take a look at it. Have you ever wondered why a button is placed at where it is, or how exactly does touching your screen on a laptop manipulates what you are looking while it doesn’t at something like a TV?

Sometimes we know who these designers are, sometimes we don’t. But anything that has been touched by man; that has been transformed by man, is in it’s very nature, Design.

The most interesting thing of design is how almost every single decision made in a design has a story to them. (yes, even dumb designs like the Apple Mouse that can’t be used while charging) The constant barrage of asking “why” is embedded into the very definition of Design, as we are always trying to find out why things the way they are, why things aren’t and everything in between, also said by Jony Ive.

So Why Take Things Apart?

The Industrial Revolution as a whole has change the way we look at products. The amount of goods and products that are produced are far more than what humans could ever dream of. With this in mind, it’s easy to see how we can interact with objects without even knowing who designed them.

The growing spread of automation into nearly every sector also pushes this notion. As we are provided more simpler and easier ways to use products, we tend to think less and less about how something truly works. As designers, growing our knowledge of how things work are instrumental in not only how we create new designs, but also view the world as a whole.

As James May puts it in The Reassembler:

Only when these much loved and iconic objects are laid out in hundreds of bits — and then slowly reassembled, that you can truly understand how they work, and how ingenius they really are

James May: The Reassembler is a show dedicated to taking things apart (and rebuilding them) in a gesture of appreciating the design of many objects. BBC Four

For the most part, that’s quite true. A similar process, namely reverse engineering has been done for years in order to deduce design features without prior knowledge on how it is exactly produced, and to an extend even reproduce them. In the same vain, teardowns can be a handy method for designers to learn about the many objects we never thought about, and truly appreciate the ingenuity of the design.

I should first note, that teardown is an informal term for the act of dismantling or disassembling an object, usually objects that consists of multiple components.We might feel that thinking ahead is always the way forward, that the past is nothing but a footprint, and yet it’s always worth a look back to truly appreciate how Designers in the past have done things that seem minuscule today.

The teardown, is usually divided into, though not exclusive to two main stages: Disassembly and Reassembly. Disassembly would be where discoveries happen; where we would pry and crawl to find out what works and what doesn’t (it’s even more exciting without any guides!) While Reassembly would be putting it back together, granted you don’t break any of the vital components. One should note, reassembly isn’t required to obtain the knowledge, it simply cements the process by repeating what has been done, not to mention you needed the object to function again.

My personal experience, being a cyclist, is disassembling a bike and stripping it of every component. Yes, reading a book about bicycles would probably save me all the effort and some of the components i managed to break, but there was an eerie feeling of satisfaction as I painstakingly took it apart, learning new things that I never could truly understand watching countless videos on Youtube. Reassembling it, was a totally different ballpark, as I had to make sure the components were in the right place, the right pressure, the right tightness to ensure it worked properly. In short, Picking apart my bicycle taught me what made it run, but reassembling it taught me how it runs.

The sheer joy I had after taking apart my bicycle was something I’ve never felt before

Moving forwards, I only truly understood how bicycles actually work, and that’s well over the 15 years I’ve been riding one! It truly is a fascinating feat how much thought and how the different parts are laid in perfect harmony to create such an iconic object. It’s something rather beautiful as well, considering I have no connection with who created the bike, or the concept of it.

Teardowns of course, aren’t exclusive to mechanical objects and tangible objects, but can also be used in a digital-sense. Yes, the approach is fundamentally different, but the process is mostly the same. For example, a web developer might tap into the source code of various websites and learn new tricks to improve his own knowledge, and the popularity of open-source software even promotes it, providing many people to not only study and use the software, but change and even create something brand new.

It’s those moments of awe where we tend to overlook and perhaps miss in our vastly simplified lives. In an age where so many things are so simple, we aren’t driven to have such intricate relationships we once had. Perhaps this absence of intimacy with objects is what makes D.I.Y. so appealing nowadays, as humans creative desires are increasingly thrown out of the window in favor of simplification. So whether you’re a Designer looking to learn new things or a regular Joe who’s got a spare time, it is without a doubt, that you can truly appreciate design, once you start taking them apart.

Product Design Student from Indonesia — eternally stuck between knowing too little and wanting to learn more