Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design [NOOK Book]

Overview

Design pervades our lives. Everything from drafting a PowerPoint presentation to planning a state-of-the-art bridge embodies this universal human activity. But what makes a great design? In this compelling and wide-ranging look at the essence of invention, distinguished engineer and author Henry Petroski argues that, time and again, we have built success on the back of failure--not through easy imitation of success.

Success through Failure shows us that making something ...

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Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design

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Overview

Design pervades our lives. Everything from drafting a PowerPoint presentation to planning a state-of-the-art bridge embodies this universal human activity. But what makes a great design? In this compelling and wide-ranging look at the essence of invention, distinguished engineer and author Henry Petroski argues that, time and again, we have built success on the back of failure--not through easy imitation of success.

Success through Failure shows us that making something better--by carefully anticipating and thus averting failure--is what invention and design are all about. Petroski explores the nature of invention and the character of the inventor through an unprecedented range of both everyday and extraordinary examples--illustrated lectures, child-resistant packaging for drugs, national constitutions, medical devices, the world's tallest skyscrapers, long-span bridges, and more. Stressing throughout that there is no surer road to eventual failure than modeling designs solely on past successes, he sheds new light on spectacular failures, from the destruction of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940 and the space shuttle disasters of recent decades, to the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001.

Petroski also looks at the prehistoric and ancient roots of many modern designs. The historical record, especially as embodied in failures, reveals patterns of human social behavior that have implications for large structures like bridges and vast organizations like NASA. Success through Failure--which will fascinate anyone intrigued by design, including engineers, architects, and designers themselves--concludes by speculating on when we can expect the next major bridge failure to occur, and the kind of bridge most likely to be involved.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Success has given failure a bad name. Who wants to scrutinize bridge failures and shuttle disasters when we can revel in the breakthroughs of science? But, according to author/professor Henry Petroski, failure is the true mother of invention. He describes how grappling with malfunctions leads to creative insights and improvements, while modeling designs solely on past successes paves the surest road to ruin. Like Petroski's book The Evolution of Useful Things, Success through Failure bristles with interesting facts and case studies.
Publishers Weekly
From the clumsy packaging of Aleve pain reliever to the space shuttle Columbia disaster, this engrossing study mourns and celebrates failed designs that spur further improvement. Civil engineer Petroski, author of The Evolution of Useful Things and other meditations on manufactured objects, reminds us that setbacks teach us more than triumphs. The principle is easy to see in gargantuan construction projects; the art of bridge building, he notes, advances over the rubble of collapsed spans. But the essence of engineering, he contends, is to construe every limiting aspect of existence as a remediable malfunction; even the elemental wooden pointer is an underperforming contraption with a bug-finite length-corrected in the next generation of laser pointers. The moral Petroski draws-success breeds hubris and catastrophe, failure nurtures humility and insight-is worth pondering, but his conceit mainly furnishes a peg for his trademark historical sketches of the world of objects, full of evocative observations of, say, those interludes during the glitch-prone dawn of PowerPoint presentations when "everyone just stood around or sat by and watched in silence as the bashful new technology was coaxed out of its black box." He delivers a lesson in the price of progress and another perceptive look at the relationship between man and his stuff. Photos. B&w illus. (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This is a book about human nature in design settings and its role in the development of products and our built environment. Petroski (Evolution of Useful Things), a highly praised and popular engineering writer, draws on his body of work to pull together his knowledge of the relationship between success and failure in engineering design. Ingenuity is explored as a pendulum that swings between success and failure, driven by design philosophy and practices in a given place and time. Case studies and examples include bridges, spacecrafts, airports, buildings with architectural celebrity, New Coke, U-Locks, and notable structures that have suffered from performance issues. Also included is a wonderful history of visual aid technologies related to education and public speaking. Success Through Failure often reads like an inspirational conference plenary, which is not surprising given that it is based on three public lectures delivered at Princeton University in 2004. Strongly recommended for engineering and public library collections.-James A. Buczynski, Seneca Coll. of Applied Arts & Tech., Toronto Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Booklist
From ancient Roman engineers dismayed at the failure of stone-arch bridges to twenty-first-century American architects stunned by the collapse of the Twin Towers, designers have frequently learned valuable principles through hard tutelage. Lucid and concise, this study invites nonspecialists to share in the challenge of trial-and-error engineering.
The New York Times - Cornelia Dean
From [Henry Petroski's] vantage point, failures in design and construction present perfect teaching opportunities. They are object lessons in the history and practice and beauty of engineering.
Nature - J.M. Ottino
Recent books have brought economics to the masses, and there now seems to be a trend to do the same with design. This is a good thing and this book, like several earlier ones by Petroski, is part of this very welcome trend. Success Through Failure is insightful and accessible. I hope it is widely read.
Times Higher Education Supplement - Martin Ince
Petroski's main message deserves notice. He points out that failure is an inherent part of success when it comes to design and innovation, and failure can come in many forms. Some things do not work. Others work well but nobody buys them. Yet others work fine but die out when something better comes along.
IEEE Spectrum - Steven Cass
[An] engaging and readable book. . . . Petroski uses countless interesting case histories to show how failure motivates technological advancement. . . . I recommend you keep a copy of Petroski's book on hand and flip through it next time you're feeling seduced by success.
Nature - J. M. Ottino
Recent books have brought economics to the masses, and there now seems to be a trend to do the same with design. This is a good thing and this book, like several earlier ones by Petroski, is part of this very welcome trend. Success Through Failure is insightful and accessible. I hope it is widely read.
" Booklist ce Christensen

From ancient Roman engineers dismayed at the failure of stone-arch bridges to twenty-first-century American architects stunned by the collapse of the Twin Towers, designers have frequently learned valuable principles through hard tutelage. Lucid and concise, this study invites nonspecialists to share in the challenge of trial-and-error engineering.
Nature
Recent books have brought economics to the masses, and there now seems to be a trend to do the same with design. This is a good thing and this book, like several earlier ones by Petroski, is part of this very welcome trend. Success Through Failure is insightful and accessible. I hope it is widely read.
— J. M. Ottino
Times Higher Education Supplement
Petroski's main message deserves notice. He points out that failure is an inherent part of success when it comes to design and innovation, and failure can come in many forms. Some things do not work. Others work well but nobody buys them. Yet others work fine but die out when something better comes along.
— Martin Ince
Architectural Science Review
[Henry Petroski] explores the nature of invention and the character of the inventor through a range of everyday and extraordinary examples, and he stresses that there is no surer road to failure than modeling designs solely on past successes. . . . This book is an excellent read, and it is hard to put down.
Fast Company
Petroski tells iconic tales to demonstrate that mistakes are not obnoxious by-products of innovation but fundamental clues to the ideal.
IEEE Spectrum
[An] engaging and readable book. . . . Petroski uses countless interesting case histories to show how failure motivates technological advancement. . . . I recommend you keep a copy of Petroski's book on hand and flip through it next time you're feeling seduced by success.
— Steven Cass
The New York Times
From [Henry Petroski's] vantage point, failures in design and construction present perfect teaching opportunities. They are object lessons in the history and practice and beauty of engineering.
— Cornelia Dean
From the Publisher
"From [Henry Petroski's] vantage point, failures in design and construction present perfect teaching opportunities. They are object lessons in the history and practice and beauty of engineering."—Cornelia Dean, The New York Times

"From the clumsy packaging of Aleve pain reliever to the space shuttle Columbia disaster, the engrossing study mourns and celebrates failed designs that spur further improvement. . . . The moral Petroski draws-success breeds hubris and catastrophe, failure nurtures humility and insight-is worth pondering, but his conceit mainly furnishes a peg for his trademark historical sketches of the world of objects, full of evocative observations. . . . Henry Petroski delivers a lesson in the price of progress and another perceptive look at the relationship between man and his stuff."—
Publishers Weekly

"Recent books have brought economics to the masses, and there now seems to be a trend to do the same with design. This is a good thing and this book, like several earlier ones by Petroski, is part of this very welcome trend. Success Through Failure is insightful and accessible. I hope it is widely read."—J. M. Ottino, Nature

"Petroski's main message deserves notice. He points out that failure is an inherent part of success when it comes to design and innovation, and failure can come in many forms. Some things do not work. Others work well but nobody buys them. Yet others work fine but die out when something better comes along."—Martin Ince, Times Higher Education Supplement

"[Henry Petroski] explores the nature of invention and the character of the inventor through a range of everyday and extraordinary examples, and he stresses that there is no surer road to failure than modeling designs solely on past successes. . . . This book is an excellent read, and it is hard to put down."—
Architectural Science Review

"This is a book about human nature in design settings and its role in the development of products and our built environment. . . . Ingenuity is explored as a pendulum that swings between success and failure, driven by design philosophy and practices in a given place and time."—
Library Journal

"From ancient Roman engineers dismayed at the failure of stone-arch bridges to twenty-first-century American architects stunned by the collapse of the Twin Towers, designers have frequently learned valuable principles through hard tutelage. Lucid and concise, this study invites nonspecialists to share in the challenge of trial-and-error engineering."—Bryce Christensen, Booklist

"Petroski tells iconic tales to demonstrate that mistakes are not obnoxious by-products of innovation but fundamental clues to the ideal."—
Fast Company

"[An] engaging and readable book. . . . Petroski uses countless interesting case histories to show how failure motivates technological advancement. . . . I recommend you keep a copy of Petroski's book on hand and flip through it next time you're feeling seduced by success."—Steven Cass, IEEE Spectrum

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400849116
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 8/7/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: Course Book
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 496,470
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Henry Petroski is Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and Professor of History at Duke University. He is the author of "To Engineer Is Human" (Vintage), and was the writer and presenter of the BBC television documentary of the same title. His many other books on engineering and design include "The Pencil" (Knopf), "The Evolution of Useful Things" (Vintage), and "Small Things Considered" (Vintage).
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Read an Excerpt

Success through Failure

The Paradox of Design
By Henry Petroski

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-12225-3


Introduction

Desire, not necessity, is the mother of invention. New things and the ideas for things come from our dissatisfaction with what there is and from the want of a satisfactory thing for doing what we want done. More precisely, the development of new artifacts and new technologies follows from the failure of existing ones to perform as promised or as well as can be hoped for or imagined. Frustration and disappointment associated with the use of a tool or the performance of a system puts a challenge on the table: Improve the thing. Sometimes, as when a part breaks in two, the focal point for the improvement is obvious. Other times, such as when a complex system runs disappointingly slowly, the way to speed it up may be far from clear. In all cases, however, the beginnings of a solution lay in isolating the cause of the failure and in focusing on how to avoid, obviate, remove, or circumvent it. Inventors, engineers, designers, and common users take up such problems all the time.

The earliest useful things were, of course, those found in nature. Not surprisingly, these same things became the earliest tools. Thus, rocks came to be used as hammers. Whether a particular rock makes a good hammer depends onits size and shape and on its hardness and toughness relative to the object being hammered. Rock types that failed to accomplish desired ends became known as poor hammers and so came to be passed over. Better hammers resulted from eliminating the failures. However, even the best of rocks have limitations as hammers, and the recognition of their failure in this regard defined the design problem: Devise a better hammer. Among the problems with a hammer-rock can be that it is awkward or uncomfortable to wield. An improvement might be sought in the shape of the rock or in providing a handle for it-or from replacing the rock with something better. In time, a growing variety of metal hammer heads and wooden hammer handles, appropriate to a variety of tasks and grips, would reflect increasing specialization and diversification. Among such diversity, one might expect that there was a single best hammer for a particular task. All the others would fail to work as well at that task. Should all existing hammers fail to work properly for a newly developed task, then a still newer hammer might have to be developed. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, some five hundred different types of hammers were being produced in Birmingham, England, alone.

Technological systems also have their roots in the given world. The circadian and seasonal rhythms of nature drove the development of patterns of rest and migration. Even the simple act of sleeping when it is dark could be fraught with danger, however, as may have been discovered the hard way. If all the members of a group slept simultaneously, some might fail to survive the night. Recognizing this failure of the system would naturally lead to such concepts as the staggered watch and other means of protection. Thus, the group might begin sleeping in a cave whose single entrance could be guarded by a boulder rolled across it. The inconveniences of migration ultimately led to the development of systems of agriculture and defense. No matter how well developed a thing or system becomes, however, it will never be without limitations. There are no mechanical utopias. Therefore, there will always be room for improvement. The most successful improvements ultimately are those that focus on the limitations-on the failures.

Success and failure in design are intertwined. Though a focus on failure can lead to success, too great a reliance on successful precedents can lead to failure. Success is not simply the absence of failure; it also masks potential modes of failure. Emulating success may be efficacious in the short term, but such behavior invariably and surprisingly leads to failure itself. Thus, a single type of rock that worked reasonably well as a hammer for every previously known task might be said to be the hammer-rock. Whenever anyone wanted an all-purpose hammer they would look for that type of rock, if they had not already become accustomed to carrying it around with them. In time, however, there would arise a task in which the hammer-rock would fail. This would occur, for example, when the implement was used to strike a newly discovered but harder and tougher rock, with the purpose of shattering it. But to everyone's surprise, it would be the hammer-rock itself that would shatter. Past successes, no matter how numerous and universal, are no guarantee of future performance in a new context.

This book explores the interplay between success and failure in design and, in particular, describes the important role played by reaction to and anticipation of failure in achieving success. Since the book grew out of a series of lectures, the nature of lectures generally-and specifically the technology of the illustrated lecture as an evolving system-suggested itself as a topic with which to begin. From its precursors to the magic lantern, through the overhead and 35-mm-slide projector, to computer-based PowerPoint presentations projected through digital devices, successive improvements are shown to have been motivated by and arisen in response to the real and perceived failures of earlier means-and the systems within which they operated-to perform as well as could be imagined in the context of always-developing technologies and their attendant introduction of new expectations.

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. Though a wooden pointer can be made only so long before it becomes too heavy and unwieldy to use on a stage, we invariably want to extend its reach. As a result, a lecturer might have to step into the field of a projected image to tap on a detail, thereby covering up some of the context. Of course, the limitations of the wooden pointer became moot with the development of the laser pointer, which has its own limitations. Its longer "reach" means that in an unsteady hand the movement of its "point" is amplified. Furthermore, the laser pointer's light touch does not allow the projection screen to be tapped for emphasis. Also, sometimes it is difficult to pick out the pointer's red dot from among a scattering of red data points. Technological advancement is not unqualified technological improvement.

Most things have more than a single purpose, which obviously complicates how they must be designed and how they therefore can fail. The more complicated the design problem, naturally the more difficult the solution and hence the more likely that some details and features may be overlooked, only to have their absence come to the fore after the thing is manufactured or built and put to the test of use. And failure can manifest itself in extrafunctional ways, including the inability of a product to maintain market share, thus disappointing corporate managers, directors, and stockholders. Poor performance, whether in the lab or on the ledger, signals a failure to be addressed. Such matters are explored through the many examples contained in the second and subsequent chapters of this book.

It is not only concrete things like projectors and pointers that pose problems in design and its limitations. Among the intangible things considered in the third chapter are intellectual and symbolic ones like national constitutions and flags, where the failure to anticipate how such politically charged things might not please their varied intended constituencies can be disastrous. Strategies for playing games like basketball, while perhaps of lesser consequence than political contests, are also matters of design, and the failure of a coach to defend against a boring offense or to match a hot shooter with a tenacious defender can result in a disappointing game for players and spectators alike. Successful design, whether of solid or intangible things, rests on anticipating how failure can or might occur.

Failure is thus a unifying principle in the design of things large and small, hard and soft, real and imagined. The fourth chapter emphasizes the sameness of the design problem for all sorts of things. Whatever is being designed, success is achieved by properly anticipating and obviating failure. Since earlier chapters focus primarily on smaller, well-defined things and contexts, this chapter also employs examples of larger things and systems, such as the steam engine and the railroad. With the underlying sameness of the design process established, the discussion turns to differences in the behavior of small and large things. In particular, the testing process, by which an unanticipated mode of failure is often first uncovered, must necessarily vary. Small things, which typically are mass produced in staggeringly large numbers, can be tested by sampling. However, very large things, which are essentially custom or uniquely built, do not present that same opportunity. And, because of their scale, the failure of large structures or machines can be devastating in all sorts of ways, not the least of which is economic.

The remaining chapters focus exclusively on large things. The fifth chapter considers buildings, especially tall and supertall buildings. Though the desire to build tall did not originate with the skyscraper, it is in that genre of architecture and structural engineering that failure can have the most far-reaching consequences. The decision to build tall is often one of ego and hubris, qualities that not infrequently originate in and degenerate into human failings of character that can lead to structural ones. In the twenty-first century, limitations on the height of buildings are not so much structural as mechanical, economic, and psychological. Structural engineers know how to build buildings much taller that those now in existence, but they also understand that height comes only at a premium in space and money. The taller buildings go, the more people must be transported vertically in elevators. The more elevators that are needed, the more elevator shafts must be provided, thus taking up more and more volume. This reduces the available office space per floor, which in turn threatens the economic viability of the enterprise. Nevertheless, for reasons of pride and striving, taller buildings will continue to be built. Still, no matter how many supertall buildings stand around the world, their success does not guarantee that of their imitators. The collapse of the twin towers of the New York World Trade Center demonstrated that unanticipated outside agents (and unperceived internal weaknesses) can create scenarios that can trigger novel failure modes.

In the sixth chapter, the book's focus turns to bridges, which provide a paradigmatic study of the paradoxical nature of success and failure in design. Overconfidently building increasingly longer bridges modeled on successful prior designs is a prescription for failure, as has been demonstrated and documented repeatedly over the past century and a half. The designers of the first Quebec Bridge, for example, were emboldened by the success of the Forth Bridge and set out to better it with a lighter and longer structure of its type. Unfortunately, the Quebec collapsed while under construction, an event that gave the cantilever form upon which it was based a reputation from which it has yet to recover in the world of long-span bridge building. Though the Quebec Bridge was successfully redesigned and rebuilt and stands today as a symbol of Canada's resolve, no cantilever bridge of greater span has been attempted since. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the third longest suspension bridge when completed in 1940, proved to have too narrow and shallow a deck, which accounted for its collapse just months after it was opened to traffic. A relatively unknown engineer without his ego invested in the design had actually warned against the excessive narrowness of the deck, but his objections were overcome by the hubris and influence of the design consultant, whose confidence in his theory was backed by numerous prior successes. Such examples provide caveats against success-based extrapolation in design. Past success is no guarantee against future failure.

The final chapter looks at the historical record of colossal failures, especially in the context of the space shuttle program and of long-span bridges. In the case of bridges, there is a striking temporal pattern of a major failure occurring approximately every thirty years since the middle of the nineteenth century and continuing through the millennium. All of the half-dozen remarkable failures that occurred within this time span resulted from designs based on successful precedents rather than on a more fundamentally circumspect anticipation and obviation of failure. Such compelling evidence argues for a greater awareness among designers of the history of the technology within which they work, but such looking back is not generally in the nature of forward-looking engineers working on the cutting edge. Still, the historic pattern has been persistent, and it should be convincing. It even suggests that a major bridge collapse can be expected to occur around the year 2030. Such a prediction gains credibility from the fact that bridge building in the twenty-first century continues to go forward in a way not unlike that which preceded the failures of the Quebec, Tacoma Narrows, and other overly daring bridges. But failures are not inevitable, of course, for if they were there might be no technological advancement. Indeed, future failures can be anticipated and thereby avoided through an appreciation for the past, which reveals in case after case an incontrovertible if paradoxical relationship between success and failure in the design process generally.

Failure and responses to it may not explain every aspect of every design, but from the engineering perspective of this book it is presented as a unifying theme for describing the functional evolution of things. In particular, the interplay between failure and success in the development of technological artifacts and systems is presented here as an important driving force in the inventive process. Most of the examples are drawn from the fields of mechanical and civil engineering, in which the author has the most direct experience. There are, of course, countless examples besides mechanical devices and civil structures that the reader may call to mind to test further the paradoxically opposed hypotheses that failure drives successful design and that success can ultimately threaten it. But the genesis of this book dictated that it not take up more than a narrow space on the library shelf, and so it could not be overly wide ranging. Hence its focus on the functional. There are numerous other factors that affect design-including the aesthetic, cultural, economic, egotistical, ethical, historical, political, and psychological-but no single book can hope to say everything about everything.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Success through Failure by Henry Petroski Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix
Introduction 1
Chapter 1: From Plato’s Cave to PowerPoint 10
Chapter 2: Success and Failure in Design 44
Chapter 3: Intangible Things 81
Chapter 4: Things Small and Large 97
Chapter 5: Building on Success 116
Chapter 6: Stepping-stones to Super-spans 139
Chapter 7: The Historical Future 163
Notes 195
Index 219
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