Stumbling Is the Cost of Doing Business

Praying at NASA
Tacoma narrows bridge falling down

If we should fail—
We fail!
But screw your courage to the sticking place,
And we’ll not fail.

Someone is bound to say, or to already have said, that failure is the new success. They won’t be far wrong. Pop psychology shelves are already loaded with books recounting how the authors flopped their way to fulfillment. A precursor of sorts was Jo Coudert’s 1965 bestseller, Advice from a Failure. Forty years later a typical title is We Got Fired! And It Was the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Us, by the motivational author Harvey Mackay. Since the authors, the case-study subjects, and the endorsers of such books are all successful (The jacket of We Got Fired has a photo of, and blurb from, Donald Trump) failing seems to be a habit best indulged in moderation.

As trends go, this is one of the more benign. Even so, like all trends, it is subject to immediate disappearance. Trends—superficial, simplistic, ephemeral, rooted in fashion—come and go. In design, however, failure as a means to success is a constant. It comes with the territory and stays there, where it has a crucial part to play.

You can’t learn from mistakes without making some. That self-evident dictum applies to life generally but is particularly applicable to professions that traffic in discovery. Both the lives and work of the most celebrated contributors to science, invention, and design—Edison, Marconi, Fuller—were a series of failures that culminated  in triumph.

Our most widely publicized design failures—NASA’s Columbia, Challenger, and Apollo 1, the New Orleans levees, Boston’s Big Dig, the Tacoma Narrows , Ford’s Edsel, Coca Cola’s new Coke—dramatize the extend to which failure is inextricably tied to the design process. The phenomenon is examined and clarified by Henry Petroski in Success Through Failure:The Paradox of Design. The author of several wonderfully illuminating books about how things work and why they so often don’t, Petroski reveals failure in design to be less of a paradox than paradigm.

Design practice depends so much on the functional inevitability of failure that it requires an instrument devised largely for the purpose of making mistakes. Namely, the model. Models and mockups are practice arenas for making mistakes in order not to make them in costlier venues later on.

The celebrated Gossamer Condor (1977) and Gossamer Albatross (1979) moved human-powered flight from fantasy to reality. In lectures and films explaining how they were developed, inventor Paul MacCready stressed the importance of test crashing. His design team’s modus operandi was to identify the point of failure and keep backing away from it. They put a prototype into the air until it crashed, then reduced the weight incrementally and flew the plane until it crashed again. They kept doing this until the plane didn’t crash, at which point they began adding weight until they determined the heaviest fuselage able to make the flight.

You can’t argue with success, they say; but you can argue with failure. And if you do, it invariably argues back convincingly and instructively. The rewards are often astonishing. This may be what the management guru Tom Peters had in mind when he said, “Nothing is more important or beneficial for individuals or organizations than screwing up.” But how to screw up productively? Designer Laurie Rosenwald, who calls herself “the World’s Most Commercial Artist,” runs a workshop on “making mistakes on purpose.” When she invited me to join it, I argued that blundering is a skill in which I need no further training. That is true enough, but it was a smartass answer. If we can learn from mistakes, I suppose we can learn how to make the ones more worth learning from.

“Failure is not an option,” we are told repeatedly, and in a sense it almost never is. An option is by definition an act of choice, and failure is rarely the choice of choice. But it is a possible outcome, and the prospect can be frightening. At best the results are embarrassing; at worst they may be tragic. But failure is most damaging when unacknowledged, for the cost continues to grow pernicious and, as Oscar Hammerstein said of race prejudice, has to be carefully taught. Watching my grandchildren, or anyone else’s, I can’t help noticing that one reason they learn so quickly is that they start with no self-consciousness. Failure, which small children encounter at every turn, frustrates them, but it does not embarrass them. For toddlers, and designers, stumbling is just the cost of doing business. Alan Murray, inventor of the Murray Space Shoe, made a pair of ice skates for me, then taught me how to skate. “The trick,” he explained, “is to keep falling and catching yourself on one knee.” Sometimes you don’t manage to catch yourself until one knee or more has already hit the ice, but the system works, and that seems to be pretty much how kids learn to walk. As they grow older they develop what Adam nd Eve got as a gift from God—a sense of shame that impedes learning for life.

Unworkable ideas are to be avoided when possible, but although acting on them is dangerous, confronting them is not. Remember brainstorming? That cheap and easy formula for solving problems was heralded as a key to creativity and fell out of favor soon enough when it turned out not to be. But it had its uses, and still has. The hype did focus attention on creativity, and the technique did demonstrate the utility of letting even dumb ideas come to the surface. I once attended a brainstorming session for designers, led by a facilitator who asked the group to call out all the ideas we could think of on a given subject. We were instructed to without an consideration of how nonsensical or outrageous an idea might be, and as each idea was expressed, the facilitator wrote it on a blackboard. I remember one serious and accomplished designer who was temperamentally unable to play the game. As soon as a bad idea (as they almost all were) was proposed, he argued fiercely against putting it on the blackboard at all.  When it did appear, he attacked it with a battery of reasons, almost certainly valid, why it wouldn’t work. But on a blackboard faulty ideas are harmless and potentially useful. He simple could not stand to see mistakes displayed, even in the ephemeral medium of chalk.

How do we even measure failure? Like so many experiences, it depends on whose ox is gored. The last words of the health food activist Adele Davis are reported to have been, “I failed!” What she apparently meant, if the quote is accurate, was that, despite a lifetime of preaching nutritional virtue, she herself got no further than the age of seventy.

In “Musee des Beaux Arts,” a poem about Breughel’s painting of Icarus falling from the sky, Auden reflectms on the relativity of failure:

… the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure

Of course the fall of Icarus was itself a design failure, attributable to faulty material specification. Daedelus made the wings out of wax, which melted in flight. But the fault could as fairly be blamed on flawed piloting: Icarus, who flew the mission, ignored his father’s warning and soared to close to the sun. Design, that most human of pursuits, is inescapably prone to human error.

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