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Success through Failure:
The Paradox of Design
Henry Petroski

Paperback | 2008 | $30.95 | £25.95 | ISBN: 9780691136424
256 pp. | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | 15 line illus.
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eBook | ISBN: 9781400849116 |
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Design pervades our lives. Everything from drafting a PowerPoint presentation to planning a state-of-the-art bridge embodies this universal human activity. But what makes a great design? In this compelling and wide-ranging look at the essence of invention, distinguished engineer and author Henry Petroski argues that, time and again, we have built success on the back of failure--not through easy imitation of success.

Success through Failure shows us that making something better--by carefully anticipating and thus averting failure--is what invention and design are all about. Petroski explores the nature of invention and the character of the inventor through an unprecedented range of both everyday and extraordinary examples--illustrated lectures, child-resistant packaging for drugs, national constitutions, medical devices, the world's tallest skyscrapers, long-span bridges, and more. Stressing throughout that there is no surer road to eventual failure than modeling designs solely on past successes, he sheds new light on spectacular failures, from the destruction of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940 and the space shuttle disasters of recent decades, to the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001.

Petroski also looks at the prehistoric and ancient roots of many modern designs. The historical record, especially as embodied in failures, reveals patterns of human social behavior that have implications for large structures like bridges and vast organizations like NASA. Success through Failure--which will fascinate anyone intrigued by design, including engineers, architects, and designers themselves--concludes by speculating on when we can expect the next major bridge failure to occur, and the kind of bridge most likely to be involved.


"From [Henry Petroski's] vantage point, failures in design and construction present perfect teaching opportunities. They are object lessons in the history and practice and beauty of engineering."--Cornelia Dean, The New York Times

"From the clumsy packaging of Aleve pain reliever to the space shuttle Columbia disaster, the engrossing study mourns and celebrates failed designs that spur further improvement. . . . The moral Petroski draws-success breeds hubris and catastrophe, failure nurtures humility and insight-is worth pondering, but his conceit mainly furnishes a peg for his trademark historical sketches of the world of objects, full of evocative observations. . . . Henry Petroski delivers a lesson in the price of progress and another perceptive look at the relationship between man and his stuff."--Publishers Weekly

"Recent books have brought economics to the masses, and there now seems to be a trend to do the same with design. This is a good thing and this book, like several earlier ones by Petroski, is part of this very welcome trend. Success Through Failure is insightful and accessible. I hope it is widely read."--J. M. Ottino, Nature

"Petroski's main message deserves notice. He points out that failure is an inherent part of success when it comes to design and innovation, and failure can come in many forms. Some things do not work. Others work well but nobody buys them. Yet others work fine but die out when something better comes along."--Martin Ince, Times Higher Education Supplement

"[Henry Petroski] explores the nature of invention and the character of the inventor through a range of everyday and extraordinary examples, and he stresses that there is no surer road to failure than modeling designs solely on past successes. . . . This book is an excellent read, and it is hard to put down."--Architectural Science Review

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Table of Contents:

Preface ix
Introduction 1
Chapter 1: From Plato’s Cave to PowerPoint 10
Chapter 2: Success and Failure in Design 44
Chapter 3: Intangible Things 81
Chapter 4: Things Small and Large 97
Chapter 5: Building on Success 116
Chapter 6: Stepping-stones to Super-spans 139
Chapter 7: The Historical Future 163
Notes 195
Index 219

This book has been translated into:

  • Spanish
  • Japanese
  • Korean

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