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The Design of Everything: From Success to Failure

Henry Petroski
A. S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and Professor of History, Duke University

December 7, 2004
1. From Plato's Cave to PowerPoint: An Illustrated Lecture on the Illustrated Lecture
The first things were found in nature. All made things come from pre-existing (natural and made) things. The naming of things confirms this. The patent literature confirms this. All new things are improvements on old things. New things succeed where old things failed. Failure, real and perceived, is what drives invention and the evolution of technology. Design specifications are statements of failure avoidance. Any new thing is a testable hypothesis, in that it is falsifiable, i.e., it can fail to meet specifications or expectations. Inventors are technology’s avant-garde, leading by following failure. Today’s failure was yesterday’s success. Quality control, guarantees, warrantees, updates, product recalls, and the like are manifestations of the central role of failure in design. Understanding failure is essential to success. Failure, rather than success, is a more reliable guide to better design. Success-based improvement does not succeed. Examples from sports: baseball batting statistics, golf scores, track records. The role of aesthetics, fashion, and style in design can also be interpreted in terms of success and failure, as can economic considerations. Fresh examples of inventions, designs, and consumer products will be employed throughout this lecture, including: eyeglasses, Band-Aids, computer printers, PowerPoint presentations, projectors, the Segway human transporter.


December 8, 2004
2. Good, Better, Better:
  The Evolution of Imperfect Things
The same ideas that guide the design of small things also govern that of large things and systems, such as bridges, skyscrapers, dams, airplanes, space programs, and the like. Examples of specific structures and systems that will be used throughout this lecture include: New York World Trade Center (construction and collapse), space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, airplanes from the Wright Flyer to the Concorde, cell phone network, Internet shopping. Large structures and systems cannot be tested in the same way that mass-produced consumer products are. Though the uniqueness of civil-engineering projects distinguishes them, their design and evolution follow the same process of improvement as do the smallest of things. Perception is important. Failure of very large things usually has more immediate, dramatic, and far-reaching consequences than the failure of smaller. The phenomenon of the airplane crash vs. the automobile accident illustrates this. The dramatic fatal failure of anything marks a great turning point in the subsequent design and development of similar things. Loss of life combined with the uniqueness (or near uniqueness) of a thing and the rarity of an event makes a failure the object of great public scrutiny. A highly public or publicized failure often (but not always) marks the end of a genre. Political and psychological pressures become added to other design considerations. Even failures (real and perceived) that do not result in loss of life or structural collapse can have far-reaching impacts on the subsequent development of large-scale technology.

December 9, 2004
3. The Historical Future:
The Persistence of Failure
-Learning from failure: Robert Hooke, the Royal Society, and the "Great Experiment." Medical pathology and engineering failure analysis.
-Failure and literary history: Recent scholarship on the rise and fall of genre fiction. Analogies to success and failure in engineering.
-Failure and the courts: US Supreme Court cases relating to failure and falsifiability. Implications for science and engineering.
-A failure-based theory of design has predictive value: Predicting failure versus predicting success, and of the role of hubris vs. humility in design.
-The cyclic nature of failures: Implications for future designs. Failures of large bridges over the past two years exhibit a pattern. Flawed behavior of London Millennium Bridge as a continuation of the pattern. The persistent pattern of failures in bridges leads to the prediction of future failures, most likely among cable-stayed bridges.
-The Apollo program, space shuttle, and interplanetary probe experiences are rife with examples of the interplay between success and failure. (Only one in three Mars missions has been successful.) Lessons for the future of space exploration.
-Success, failure, and terrorism. The psychology and strategy of terrorism alerts. Head games. Crying wolf. Relaxing our vigilance.
-Although failures are inevitable, people have learned to live with imperfect designs and technology. Humans ultimately triumph over technology, even in the face and wake of failure.
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