The Role of Failure in Successful Design

Henry Petroski, St. Martin’s Press, 1982


This is a very important book because failure is a very important factor in successful innovation.  Since innovation is about new inventions that are not yet fully understood, failures are an almost inevitable part of the process of innovation.  They cannot be avoided.  We can work hard to keep them small and to learn from them.  That is very important.  So we should expect failures and learn how to deal with them.  If we do that failures are a very valuable part of successful design.  We need to test, and test, and re-test.  The object is to have all failures occur during the process of design, and not after the design has been completed.  Petroski discusses and explains these issues in detail.  Since the book has been around for quite a while you can get a copy for a penny plus the shipping charge.

A Book about Bridge-Building Failures

Petroski was very interested in bridge-building, so this book primarily deals with failures in that innovation area.  Therefore the details are not perfect for everyone, but the principles tend to be general.  I think that a good way to use this book would be to buy it, keep it, and read a chapter every now and then.  There are not very many books dealing with the super important subject of failures.

Contents of: To Engineer is Human

  1. Being Human
  2. Falling Down is Part of Growing Up
  3. Lessons from Play; Lessons from Life
  4. Engineering as Hypothesis
  5. Success is Foreseeing Failure
  6. Design is Getting from Here to There
  7. Design as Revision
  8. Accidents Waiting to Happen
  9. Safety in Numbers
  10. When Cracks Become Breakthroughs
  11. Of Bus Frames and Knife Blades
  12. Interlude: The Success Story of Crystal Palace
  13. The Ups and Downs of Bridges
  14. Forensic Engineering and Engineering Fiction
  15. From Slide Rule to Computer: Forgetting How it Used to Be Done
  16. Connoisseurs of Chaos
  17. The Limits of Design

Five Chapters That I Especially Recommend

I especially recommend the following five chapters because they are the most general, and do not focus primarily on bridge design and failure.


Design as Revision

Forensic Engineering and Engineering Fiction

From Slide Rule to Computer

The Limits of Design

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