Review of Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design

Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design
Henry Petroski

Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2018
235 pp.,15 ills. b/w. Trade, $US19.55
ISBN 978-0-691-18099-1.

October 2018

Henry Petroski, author of Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design, states his thesis less than 50 pages into this update of his original 2006 book: "Success and failure are the two sides of the coin of design" (48).

"Design," he elaborates, pervades contemporary life, where everything has "been designed, in the sense that it has been acquired, adapted, altered, arranged, and assembled deliberately to accomplish a specific objective. Designed things are the means by which we achieve desired goals" (48).

Given this grounding, readers can see that the book's title, Success through Failure, speaks to the subtitle, The Paradox of Design. It seems paradoxical to think that everything we see, or use, is the result of some purposeful effort to overcome an earlier design failure. Petroski follows with a definition for failure provided by the Technical Council on Forensic Engineering of the American Society of Civil Engineers as "an unacceptable difference between expected and observed performance." The solution for such failure is to anticipate how, where, and when it might occur, and work to eliminate those opportunities. This might be considered conceptual design, user analysis, and testing. Total success is the complete lack of failure, and unfortunately none of these efforts, alone or combined, can, or will, address all opportunities for failure.

But many failures can be eliminated ahead of production. Failure(s) beyond product launch can be addressed through versions, editions, or product warranties. "In making things small and large, it is always the perception and reality of failure that drives their invention, design, crafting, and evolution," Petroski says (99).

Atop this foundation, Petroski discusses examples of made or built things, small and large, aspirin bottles, tall buildings, bridges, the Apollo space program. Along the way, he slips in another consideration for failure: the inability of a thing to perform as desired. Why cannot we make taller buildings, longer bridge spans, or more aggressive space travel? To his credit, Petroski notes that in cases such as these, design is not predicated, or even driven by earlier failure, but rather by human ego and hubris. So, again, we confront the design-success-failure paradox.

In his updated introduction, Petroski provides a solution when he writes, "The vast majority of users of a technology adapt to its limitations. In fact, to use any single thing is implicitly to accept its limitations. But it is in human nature to want to use things beyond their intended range" (4).

Petroski built his book from a series of lectures, I assume in his role as a distinguished professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University. His other book titles include The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure and The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors: A Tale of Architectural Choice and Craftsmanship. I have not read these previous books by Petroski. But, I imagine in them, as in Success through Failure, he explores "the interplay between success and failure in design" with special attention to the anticipation of failure in achieving success (3).

In concluding, Petroski notes that "good design always takes failure into account and strives to minimize it" (193). But, designers are human, and subject to the failings of the species, including complacency, overconfidence, and unwarranted optimism (193-194). And, there are other factors that affect design—aesthetic, cultural, economic, egotistical, ethical, historical, political, and psychological (9). No single book can hope to address everything about everything, says Petroski. But, from lectures to bridges the lessons offered by Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design are there for the learning: success breeds hubris and catastrophe, failure prompts humility and insight. Now, that's an interesting design paradox.