This is an odd but fascinating book about the business of industrial design in 1930-50's US. It promotes a perspective to design which later generations know as human-centered design. It does not talk about user experience, usability, innovation or design thinking with the terms we have for them today, but it surely gives an interesting perspective for a 21st century reader on the past thinking on these topics.
An interesting comparison is contrast Designing for People to Tim Brown's Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation released 54 years after. It seems reasonable to ask if the field of design has developed at all, maybe except for branding. It seems that the office of Dreyfuss was essentially practicing all methods under the mindset of "design thinking" Brown presented as the holy grail of organizational innovation.
The book holds a quite detailed account of the operation of Henry Dreyfuss and one might call it an autobiography. Biography in a form of a vitae and an industrial design business cook book. This is also the problem of the tome. At best, it provides insights and details, reports from the past which would be otherwise unattainable. At worst, it reads out as a (poorly) guided tour to a trophy room. A short story after short story in an identical format, describing yet another Dreyfuss victory in some exotic field of design. This is emphasized by the result-oriented style of the narrator, which always describes the glorious outcome of the design process, where as the process receives less attention.
The biggest problem I, as a design scholar, have with the book is about the rather mystified design process view. Although Dreyfuss does provide a lot of examples on how they as a design agency repeatedly used research, prototyping and some intuition to solve even the toughest problems, there is awfully lot missing. Even though chapter 15 does document some humoristic irks on the detail level, there is not much talk about failures, temporary set backs or the confusion usually associated with a creative process. Much of the success ends up being attributable to character of the designer(s). Designers appear as god like infallible creatures capable to undertaking and overtaking any design task better than the client company they are hired for. And the writer is very clearly depicting himself as one such uomo universal for instance in his description of transforming McCall's magazine. I'm exaggerating, but bothers me most is the complete credit for the mutual efforts of design company personnel.
I hate to say it but this book fails to give any real credit to a great number of people who must be responsible for the great achievements of Mr. Dreyfuss. Coming back to 21st century, for the defense of Mr. Brown and his fellow IDEOans, they do acknowledge the team performance making design possible. It is not just whoever and however that the visions of design can be harmonized and executed successfully, there is an appropriate combination of the right type of skills and personalities needed at the job. Of course, the prototyping techniques introduced in Dreyfuss' book and their modern equivalents are important but they are not the only source of magic.
I recommend this book for post-modern reader with an interest in the history of design business. It gives a nice modernist view on design, one which is surprisingly timely in our post-modern times. It provokes lot of thought, in good and bad. The prophecies and war stories of Dreyfuss can be boring, but there is lot of very practical information here and there to be found, making it a mostly pleasant reading.