Checks and balances

November 29, 2010

In a conversation over breakfast this morning an architect friend was relaying a conversation she in turn had had the previous evening with someone influential in the world of economics. He was wondering why in architecture and design there are relatively few examples of massive and systemic failures. Buildings rarely fall down and products rarely fail to work basically as intended. He compared this to the financial world where 'new designs' often fail systemically with significant unforeseen downsides. Of course there are failures in design and the occasional product recall to prove it but in general his observation is accurate. The design process as applied to products, buildings and other tangible things is quite reliable.

This led me to wonder about two things. Firstly, why is the design of tangible things so reliable and secondly are there lessons from attempts to design in the abstract world of economics that may be useful to all design thinkers?

My response to the first question would be to wonder about the inherent transparency of tangible things. It seems to me quite a bit easier to inspect and test designs that are tangible versus designs that are intangible, and often extremely complex. Even in their nascent form as drawings many people can assess the viability of a new product idea during the design process. It is also relatively easy, and getting easier all the time, to create prototypes that can be tested under the laws of physics, markets or any other environment one might be interested in. The design of physical things also has a long tradition and hence many past examples to draw on when imagining potential failure modes.

So, what happens when we leave the world of tangibility and enter the abstract. Examining software design might be a good first stop. Here we see many of the same characteristics as in the tangible world (fast prototyping, iteration, reasonable transparency) that help mitigate against catastrophic failure but we also see some of the characteristics of the abstract and complex that signal potential danger. The network effects of modern software mean the ultimate impacts of our design can be hard to understand and imagine in advance. The relative ease of iteration and innovation makes change constant and the impact of that change hard to assess. As we move even further from the comfort of tangibility toward financial systems, social networks, health care systems and the like the predictability, evaluation and transparency of new designs become even more of a problem and the risks of dramatic failure increase.

As far as I can see there is little inherent in the design process that protects design thinkers from these same failures if we choose to tackle abstract, intangible questions such as services, systems and networks. Instead we might imagine how to apply the same rigor and discipline to the design process that has emerged from hundreds of years of practice in the tangible world. We might concentrate on how to make the process of the design of the intangible as transparent and open to observation as the design of the tangible. We might develop prototyping environments that allow us to learn through failure without catastrophic implications. We might accept that we need better mechanisms for criticism and feedback so that we begin to establish a body of knowledge about what works, and what does not, in the design of these things that don't go 'thud' when we drop them.