Design is spiritual or conceptual creation prior to physical instantiation. A creator/engineer/designer thinks through things up front, then applies tools and methods in an attempt to conceptualize a particular thing (object, product, system, process) to achieve some purpose (whatever it might be). I suppose the measure of success for a designer lies in the degree to which that design meets the set of desirable objectives, and fails conversely.
Why does it seem so tough sometimes? I’m continually stunned at what I’ve come to refer to as “products that were obviously not designed to do the thing they were designed for,” or alternatively, “products that were never designed to work a single time.” Seems like I’ve been coming across these in spades the past few years—stuff that fails right out of the box.
In fairness, failures are easier to write about, in part because they’re generally more obvious. That’s probably because spectacular failures generally create significant inconvenience that tends to get our attention. Spectacular successes sometimes fly under the radar because it’s just the way it’s supposed to work. In addition, things that have been around for a while that really are spectacular (and amazing that they can even function at all) are often simply a backdrop. For example, I have some significant nits associated with air travel, but of course that’s against a backdrop of air travel, which is itself a pretty amazing and spectacularly successful thing.
So I guess I need to qualify things a bit. For my purposes, successes to be included here are those that are truly spectacular, whether large or small, and which represent some advance in art, science or practice. Often they represent an almost amazingly obvious but small improvement. For example, for a period of about 10 years, my wife and I hauled around a constant stream of newborn infants in carriers that forced you to cock your arm at an unnatural angle. That’s because the handle was always perpendicular to the baby and hence perpendicular to the direction a father faces while carrying a baby carrier. So who was the genius who realized that you could put two 90 degree jogs in the handle, creating a relatively small stretch of handle parallel to the baby and thus permit you to haul your infant with your arm in a natural position?! I don’t know, but whoever it is should be knighted. Pure genius. Amazingly, while I hauled kids around like that for 10 years, it never dawned on me to think about that change in design. That’s the thing about brilliant design. It often looks like a very small step that is huge, but apparently non-obvious until done, and then entirely obvious afterward. Those are the successes.
The failures tend to jump out obviously enough and it’s somewhat natural to dwell on the negative. But I’m not looking at garden variety failures, like when things wear out before they ought to, or something went wrong in manufacturing. I’m looking at egregious failures in which the whole thing was really never designed to work in the first place—products essentially doomed long before they were ever manufactured.
I’m also curious about common threads, and I’m confident that some will emerge, but I believe that they all share the common attribute that the designers did not consider fundamental and essential scenarios of usage. We’ll have to see as the observational pool grows over time.