Though he quit four years later to write a novel, “Say Yes!,” which he described as a parody of a self-help book, he remained at I.D. as a columnist and consultant for decades. The topics he wrote about included the best way to install a roll of toilet paper. (He was eloquent on both sides of the issue.)
“He was observant and hilarious,” said Chee Pearlman, arts and design curator at the TED conferences, who had been a longtime editor of I.D., “and his observations of design, seen through his impish, wry lens, gave a lot of stature to what designers were doing but also took them down a notch.”
For a time his business card read, “Director, Center for Peripheral Studies.”
Mr. Caplan was born on Jan. 4, 1925, in Sewickley, Pa., and grew up in nearby Ambridge, a steel town. (He often said that Richard Serra sculptures made him homesick.) His father, Louis, owned a butcher shop and later a wholesale grocery business. His mother, Ruth (Hirsch) Caplan, was a homemaker and a bookkeeper for her husband.
When Ralph was suspended from high school for cutting class, his father sent him to the Kiski School, a character-building boarding school for boys. He attended Earlham College, a Quaker liberal arts school in Indiana, for one semester and then joined the wartime Marines, where he performed stand-up comedy for his shipmates on the Pacific crossing.
After World War II, he returned to Earlham on the G.I. Bill and earned a bachelor’s degree in English there and then a master’s of fine arts in poetry at Indiana University. By his own estimation, his poetry was forgettable.