February 28, 2012
News & Opinion: To Forgive Design
As consumers, we love products that look nice and are easy to use. As humans, we enjoy created environments that enhance our quality of life while offering an interesting visualization to the natural world. But sometimes, our phones don't work properly, or our cars break down. Other times, bridges collapse, and oil spills destroy oceans and wildlife. In these instances, we are often quick to blame the design. In his new book, To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure, Henry Petroski makes the case that there is much more involved in these situations than simply poor design, from the human systems the design exists within, to other natural elements and complex behaviors that can be difficult or impossible for engineers and designers to predict, no matter how much research has been done in advance. Because of this, Petroski begins at the starting point: "Failure to imagine the possibility of failure is the most profound mistake engineers can make." Failure is a major theme of the book, and is discussed as a way to become less fearful of it, and more intelligent about how to handle it when it occurs. "Managed failure" is something often built into systems and products to be faulty in a way that compensates some other portion of the product or its usage. But it's the unmanaged or unplanned failures that cause the most disruption. These, Petroski infers, need to be better understood - both as insight for how we react to things, and as a guide for how we design within our own work - whether we're engineers, or not. There are nearly countless case studies within the book that show how well-designed and engineered situations have failed, and how in each case, it was not simply design (though that was where the flaw was revealed) that caused the failure. Per the title, the book calls us to forgive design for its failures when they occur, and look more at how the nearly infinite variables that surround design can have a huge effect on how well that design maintains over time. This is a highly fascinating read for anyone interested in why things are designed the way they are, especially when they go wrong.