Failing Well

by Laura Mattis

I have been hearing a lot about resilience lately. It's the core topic of Andrew Zolli's book, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, the central theme of PopTech in 2012 (directed and curated by Zolli) and the theme of this year’s Compostmodern conference about design and sustainability. What’s so interesting about resilience?

For me, it’s the implied optimism. Even when everything “goes down the toilet”, you know in the end that things will work themselves out. The natural world adapts and evolves to changing conditions; for example, coral reefs documented as completely destroyed could be thriving in 10 years time. We can expect little to stay unchanged for long.

Designers and engineers have had to confront these issues head-on, especially in planning for the degradation of parts and materials. What designers create won’t last forever and as long as we make products, there will be a weak link and failure point somewhere. The key question is not if it will fail, but when. WIRED magazine explored this issue in depth with Ford and their own dangerous issues of gas-pedal hinge reliability and fallibility.

Designers are frequently challenged to create the next best thing, but we should be reframing the problem. In a world where we can build anything, have you ever considered what would happen if our old products could find a life after our desire and use for them is gone? Design is all about "failing early and failing often" and is comfortable with ambiguous answers.

Next time you’re considering a design solution, I’d like to offer these thought-starters:

  • What if failure became a problem that was solved for instead of avoided?
  • Instead of failing early, what if designers built products to fail well at any point?
  • What about a future where products are easily fixed or could fix themselves, no matter how complex they are?
  • Over time as a product fails, can it become another, different usable product?

That’s sounds like a greater and more exciting challenge to me than creating the next big thing. Designers are optimistic people and I think people and product resilience fits well with our M.O. The ability to embrace failure is what makes the design process unique so let’s take it to the next level.

If we fail, we’ll just adapt to make something better, right?