As they explore C.R.A.F.T. (the Center for Retrofitting and Failure Techniques, described to the Complex Social Change community at the November 7, 2013 panel in Bruce MacKay’s Activism class,) Peter Hall explains his stance on failure to Emily Luce.
You’ve done extensive work on failure over the last 5 years. When did failure first become interesting to you, and why?
I became interested in failure as a topic of inquiry for the design professions because we are so success-obsessed, as a profession and as a culture. It seemed funny and provocative to organise a design event around the topic of failure. DesignInquiry 2008 was named Fail Again, using a line from the great writer Samuel Beckett (“Try again, fail again, fail better”). We were not so interested in the engineering discourse failure (Edward Tenner, Henry Petroski et al) which takes a positivist approach to failure analysis as a means to better, stronger technologies; we were more interested in the way in which visual language, like spoken and written language, depends on mistakes and misunderstandings in order to thrive and grow.
As I became more interested in the writings of Bruno Latour, it became increasingly clear that our culture’s fixation with success is connected to the process through which facts, objects and designed things become powerful but somewhat invisible forces in our world — the way an object like a car or cell phone starts to seem natural and normal in a culture, or the way a scientific theory becomes a fact. When something fails, it is an opportunity to see that process laid bare, or more specifically, to see all the influencing forces (or “actors”) that were present in its formation. This way a “fact” like the space shuttle becomes, when it explodes, “thing” that is the subject of an investigation. Failure is very useful in this sense, as I discuss in response to question 2.
How can failure influence or enhance design practice and discourse?
A failure, and failure analysis, allows us to critically inspect the things we have designed and ask if we really want them to do what they are doing; for example, we might look at the failure of a city’s road signs to get people where they need to go. An engineering solution would maybe add a few more signs, take some away, make some more reflective. But a design inquiry failure analysis would open up the whole topic of road signs, investigate their history, their typographic history and its entanglement with planning, mobilisation of troops, placemaking, universal design, etc. It would keep unfolding the inquiry, asking difficult questions about whether we want signs that make people drive faster, bypass town centers and get where they’re going faster, or whether we want to consider signs that invite people to explore a place, slow down. In this way I think failure can help us question assumptions we take for granted, which is necessary to move design practice and and discourse forward.
The term retrofitting came into common use in the late 1940s around engineering and building, basically updating outdated objects. But in the context of design practice, this idea seems more expansive. Can you discuss your thinking around the concept of the retrofit?
We addressed the topic of retrofitting in 2011, at Design Inquiry: Make Do. To “make do” is to create something out of immediately available resources, often within a time constraint. The phrase seems to perfectly describe design practice in the 21st Century, when we are more conscious of the resources we use. Unlike the start of the 20th Century, today there is less zeal among designers for manifestos, utopias, revolutions, for the idea of beginning with a clean slate, with the denial of history and the goal of wholesale reinvention of society. Today we see a quieter embrace of the aesthetics of salvage, a recognition of the ingenuity of repurposing and reworking existing objects. We share the delight of an anachronistic move, an unexpected juxtaposition of materials resulting from the reuse of manufactured things.
My colleague Tony Fry has adapted the word retrofit to create the neologism “metrofit” implying that we need to retrofit entire cities to prepare them better for impending and ongoing changes – - population boom, congestion, floods, earthquakes, fires, civil unrest,etc.
What might happen when we combine retrofitting and failure techniques? Why should they be together?
When we combine retrofitting and failure techniques we arrive at a method for critically analysing design and then for adapting it so it works better. This seems to me a good way to situate design practice now that we’ve come to the end of the utopian belief that we can control and exploit the natural resources around us and just keep inventing new things to fix the latest problems and make our lives better. We have to reflect on what went wrong, how it happened, and then retrofit — rather than start from scratch. On a very practical level, this means we do simple, low key experiments and investigations that help provide methods and build knowledge that would be useful to lots of people. This could range from retrofitting a barn to create a roadside fruit & veg stand, to retrofitting a ferry schedule so that it allows more people to use public transport. Small changes that would have a viral or emergent effect and trigger other changes.
Peter Hall is a design writer and educator based at Griffith University Queensland College of Art, where he heads the Design Futures program. His research focuses on uses of mapping and visualization in design criticism and practice. His books include Else/Where: Mapping – New Cartographies of Networks and Territories (2006), Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist (1999) and Sagmeister: Made You Look (2001). He has lectured and published widely on design practice, failure, history, mapping and visualisation, with essays in over a dozen books, current and recent papers in five academic journals and over 50 authored articles in Metropolis magazine . He was awarded a BA (Hons) in English and Philosophy from the University of Hull, and is currently enrolled in the doctoral program at Griffith University Queensland College of Art.