Review: Success through failure: The paradox of design

Review by Eliana El-Khoury

What leads to a good design? Henry Petroski argues that good design is built on learning from past failures. Petroski takes the reader on a journey to explore the origin of contemporary designs and the failures that lead to these designs.

In order to build his argument about success through failure, Petroski starts by giving examples about how modern things that we use in everyday life evolved through time. He argues, through clear examples, that the designs we use today are a result of failures or shortcomings in earlier design versions. In the second chapter, Petroski gives examples of success and failure in designs. In the third chapter, Petroski gives examples about failure in design in intangible and symbolic thins like flags, medicine, games and religious and cultural symbolism. Later, he describes the evolution of complex systems and the different testing mechanisms needed to avoid failure. Then he proceeds to the needs and the decisions to build more complex systems like taller skyscrapers and longer bridges. Petroski also gives examples about designs build on previous successes, not failures, like NASA designs and how that affected the success of the prototypes. In the last chapter, he analyzes the cycle of successes and failure and projected that into the future to predict failure occurrences. Petroski presented in this book an exciting journey into the historical design of everyday things like buildings, bridges, medicine, drugs and lectures. He explains how social human behavior has an impact on design.

This book offers a critical approach to the design of teaching and learning. It leads to questions about what is teaching and learning based on, is it based on past success designs? Are we, as educators, learning from what worked for a long time and applying the same things? Are we applying analysis of failure to create new designs? This book is important to analyze innovation in teaching and to accept failure and consider it a new venture for more success. A major point in Petroski’s book is the understanding that no design is perfect and the secret to success is learning from failure and constantly changing for the better.

Petroski, H. (2006). Success through failure: The paradox of design. Princeton University Press.


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