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Success through Failure: The Paradox of Designby Henry Petroski
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"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." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[T]his engrossing study mourns and celebrates failed designs that spur further improvement." Publishers Weekly
"[O]ften 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." Library Journal
"Success through Failure is an insightful and accessible foray into design. The book is a page-turner, with an intensity that builds as you read. I found myself waiting for discussions of various topics — from the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to the space shuttle — only to find them before me several pages later. A must-read for any design engineer, or anyone who wants to understand how great designs evolve." Jonathan Cagan, coauthor of The Design of Things to Come and Creating Breakthrough Products
"This most readable book presents design from an engineer's point of view; its author is one of the masters of this approach. It will enrich engineers' understanding of their profession's heritage and tools, and help nonengineers see everything from slide shows to skyscrapers in new ways." Edward Tenner, author of Our Own Devices and Why Things Bite Back
"Lucid and concise, this study invites nonspecialists to share in the challenge of trial-and-error engineering." Booklist
"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." Martin Ince, Times Higher Education Supplement
About 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).
Table of Contents
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
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