Henry Petroski about design, failures and compromises
Among my readings during Easter was this "Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design" by Henry Petroski. The whole book is about design as a compromise in response to constraints, illustrated by stories concerning automobile cup holders, duct tape, WD-40, paper cups/bags and the devices to make them, the invention of single-lever faucets, the redesign of vegetable peelers and printers. It reads a bit like a Stephen Jay-Gould book in the sense that it's highly descriptive with lots of details. Some chapters are a bit less insightful than others (the one about buying a house was a bit less interesting). And Petroski is an engineer, which gives him a certain perspective of the world. The conclusion was certainly the part that interested me most, about silos/disciplines:
"Designing and building a piece of technology is more than an application of science. In fact, relying on science alone would make it virtually impossible to design even a modest bridge. What science would be applied? The laws of mechanics tell us that forces must balance if the bridge is to stand. But what forces, and stand how? Unless inventors and engineers, designers all, can first visualize some specific kind of bridge in their mind's eye, they have nothing to which to apply the laws of science. The creation of a bridge or any other artifact requires, before anything else something imagined. Whether or not science can be applied to that mental construct is a matter of availability. It there is a body of scientific knowledge that can be applied, then it would be foolish not to exploit it. (...) In fact, "Science finds - Industry Applies - Man Conforms" will never be more than a catchy motto. The reality is "People Design - Industry Makes - Science Describes." It is the creative urge that drives the human endeavor of design, which leads to inventions, gadgets, machines, structures, systems, theories, technologies, and sciences. Both science and technology are themselves artifacts of human thought and effort."
And the last bit about failures:
"Simply put, all technology is imperfect as its creators, and we can expect that it will always be. As we can, by practice and discipline, improve our own behavior, so we can, by experience and process improve the behavior of our creations. (...) As this book has suggested, there are countless examples of technology's imperfections and limitations, from the simplest of the most complex of made things. By understanding their flaws and the limitations of the design process that created them, we can better appreciate why they are and must be imperfect. All things designed and made have to conform to constraints, have had to involve choice among competing constraints, and thus have had to involve compromise among the choices. By understanding this about the nature of design, we can better negotiate the variety of stairways that we encounter, no matter how idiosyncratic or metaphorical, taking us from one level of technology to another."
Why do I blog this? Being currently interested in "failure, possibly for a book/short piece, I am gathering sources like this. What did I learn here? all the evidences gathered in this book are meant to illustrate that "design failures" are not caused by human errors but are a side-effect of the need to make compromise between needs and constraints.