Henry Petroski
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012, English
Design, General
5.6 x 8.3 inches, hardcover, 432 pages
ISBN: 9780674065840
Suggested Retail Price: $27.95

From the Publisher. When planes crash, bridges collapse, and automobile gas tanks explode, we are quick to blame poor design. But Henry Petroski says we must look beyond design for causes and corrections. Known for his masterly explanations of engineering successes and failures, Petroski here takes his analysis a step further, to consider the larger context in which accidents occur.

In To Forgive Design he surveys some of the most infamous failures of our time, from the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse and the toppling of a massive Shanghai apartment building in 2009 to Boston’s prolonged Big Dig and the 2010 Gulf oil spill. These avoidable disasters reveal the interdependency of people and machines within systems whose complex behavior was undreamt of by their designers, until it was too late. Petroski shows that even the simplest technology is embedded in cultural and socioeconomic constraints, complications, and contradictions.

Failure to imagine the possibility of failure is the most profound mistake engineers can make. Software developers realized this early on and looked outside their young field, to structural engineering, as they sought a historical perspective to help them identify their own potential mistakes. By explaining the interconnectedness of technology and culture and the dangers that can emerge from complexity, Petroski demonstrates that we would all do well to follow their lead.

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Phil Patton

“Forgive” seems an odd word to find in a title, especially of a book about design. But there it is: To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure is Henry Petroski’s most recent volume of several on failure.

Henry Petroski, of course, is an engineering professor at Duke who, in addition to his classic history of the pencil and contemplation of ordinary small objects, wrote To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design and Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design.

The titles help us look at the uneasy border between engineering (which is arguably Petroski’s real subject) and design in some wider sense. This is an important line although it risks raising many old and misleading divisions. (The Apple Samsung patent case also touched this issue, as does the legal distinction between engineering patent and design patent.)

Engineers tend to be deeply suspicious of aesthetics. Petroksi’s account of the famous failure of the Tacoma Narrows bridge suggests why. “Galloping Gertie,” as the suspension bridge was nicknamed, is famous from an old strip of black-and-white film in which winds set off a steadily amplifying wave motion. Eventually, the bridge shakes itself to failure.

But Petroski’s version of the familiar story is different. It was not simply miscalculation or failure to consider physical effects that led to the failure, he says. It was not “unknown unknowns.” No, Petroski blames over confidence and self importance on the part of engineers—and their aesthetics. He argues that “engineers can be blinded by fashion.” In the 1930s, he says, bridge engineers had come to think that solid older bridges, exemplified by the Brooklyn bridge, were clunky and homely. They came to prefer a new aesthetic of slender, ribbon-like designs, such as the George Washington bridge. It was not just because such bridges were lighter and less expensive to build that engineers moved toward them, Petroski writes, but because they looked more attractive. And inevitably they sacrificed function to this form: like a too-thin fashion model, Gertie was a victim of her own desire to look slender.

Looking at the failure of design has become something of a cliché in academia, but Petroski shows that it remains critical. What about the failures of non-engineering design? Or can engineering be defined as the part of design whose failure can be easily identified—while that of aesthetics cannot? There are many flavors of failure: failure to sell in the marketplace, failure to achieve affordable price, failure to last, failure to be maintainable or sustainable. But what of failure to imagine? Failure to dream?

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