Describe your latest project.
My newest book is Success through Failure: The Paradox of Design. The paradox is that when we model future designs on past successes, we are inviting failure down the line; when we take into account past failures and anticipate potential new ways in which failure can occur, we are more likely to produce successful designs. The case of the ocean liner Titanic illustrates the phenomenon. Imagine that the Titanic did not strike the iceberg on its maiden voyage. Then the general belief in its "unsinkableness" would have been reinforced. In fact, if the ship went on to have many successful crossings, other ships would have copied its design, which we know was seriously flawed. Chances are that one of those success-based derivative ships would eventually have struck an iceberg and been doomed. But, as we know, the initial voyage of the Titanic was its last. Its sinking its failure was a lesson to shipbuilders, who learned from the failure how to design, build, and operate safer ships. They knew what to avoid in their own designs to increase their chances of success. My book contains many other illustrative examples of the interplay between success and failure in the evolution of designs, ranging from the small to the large. These include medicine bottles, slide projectors, skyscrapers, and long-span bridges.
What inspires you to sit down and write?
I enjoy writing. To me, the act of writing is like solving the design problem of going from an idea to an expression of that idea in words. I have always been fascinated by the way things work and how they came to take the form that they did. Writing about these things satisfies my curiosity about the made world while at the same time giving me an opportunity to design a new explanation for the processes that shape it. I guess I don't feel that I need "inspiration" to sit down and write; what I need is a problem to solve. That problem may be to explain how a pencil is made or to speculate on how images were projected for the first illustrated lecture. Since I always seem to have plenty of questions about how things come to be and work, I just have to find time to sit down and try to write down the answers. Unfortunately, those answers do not always come easily, in which case I have to put aside the writing and do research. Fortunately, when the research is done I can get back to writing. Typically in writing a book, the research I do takes me only so far in my writing before I have to stop writing and do more research. With me, it is an iterative process.
Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
In an odd sort of way, my favorite teacher was my high school math teacher. He stubbornly refused to pronounce my name correctly, and I stubbornly refused to respond when he called on me. It was a battle of the wills. At the same time, math was my favorite subject, and I excelled at his tests, even though he often threw me out of class for not responding when (incorrectly) called. I have written about this teacher in my memoir, Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer.
What do you do for relaxation?
I relax by looking at things and reading about things. Even the simplest thing can reveal a great deal about the world around us. It relaxes me greatly to sit back with my feet up and look around my study at the everyday things that surround me. Although many of these things are in the same place every evening, every now and then I see them in a new light. This is how my book on the bookshelf began. I was sitting back in my chair, which faced my bookshelves, and suddenly one evening I saw not the books on the bookshelves but the shelves themselves. Soon, I was wondering if the bookshelf was the most obvious and natural way to store books. Was it inevitable that we shelve books on flat, horizontal shelves? Is it to be expected that books should be placed vertically on such shelves? What did the first bookshelf look like? Such questions led me to look into the history of the bookshelf, which turned out to be a wonderful adventure into the history of technology and culture. I learned a lot by writing The Book on the Bookshelf, which grew out of a relaxing look about my study.
What was your favorite book as a kid?
The book I remember most is Treasure Island, which I believe I liked as much for its illustrations as for its narrative. Even as a kid, I enjoyed looking at the details the things in the pictures. As a teenager, I loved Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Although the edition I read was not illustrated, I became fascinated at how an author, using words alone, could evoke pictures in the reader's mind.
What was your best subject in high school? Your worst?
I was always told that I was good in mathematics, and I guess my grades and standardized test scores supported that. My worst subjects were those that generally involved a lot of reading English and history. So, having good test scores in math and mediocre ones in reading, I was naturally advised to major in engineering in college. I have not regretted that I became an engineer, since that gave me deeper insights into the things about me. As an engineering student, I was also required to take courses in history and literature, and I eventually came to like these subjects equally as well as I did my math and science and engineering courses. Though it did take me a while to catch on to the joys of reading, once I did I was hooked and became an omnivorous reader. And the more I read the more I began to derive great pleasure in seeing how ideas were expressed in words, which seems to be what drove me to writing.