Theme: Compromise – The Paradox of Failure

As David Pye observed, every design is a failure.


His argument rested on the idea that no design can optimise every aspect. The more complex the object the more likely this is to be the case. If we take a simple example of a knife, it’s a compromise because unavoidably the designer had to work within constraints of time and materials. The knife has to function but be affordable and attractive to enough people to make it an economically feasible proposition.  The best knife can’t appeal to everyone. For some consumers the design is unacceptable  – it remains unsold for reason of price or appearance.


If we turn to cars, the same applies. An Aston Martin Vanquish is undoubtedly a fast and capable car. It costs more than most people can afford and it doesn’t go far because its powerful engine needs a bigger fuel tank than can be accommodated in a small enough package.

The VW Golf is a best-seller because it makes compromises to suit the largest number of people yet it’s a failure too. It’s not really fast. It’s not really big. It’s too big as well: ask the owner of a Smart ForTwo.  People who live in Kensington or the Lake District want height and off-road capability.

Yet who would actually call the Golf or its peers failures? These vehicles are sold in prodigious numbers as they satisfy enough of the needs and wants of enough people. So, when Pye talks of the failure of designs he is drawing our attention to tolerating the right kind of failure and focusing on the most important aspects to prioritise.


It is ironic that the most loudly lauded cars are probably the ones with the narrowest range of abilities: broadly they are very fast. They are also capable of very little else: don’t try shopping for the week with a Ferrari Scaglietti. Don’t plan a regular long commute in a Bentley Mulsanne, not unless you’re fabulously well-off and not a little bit socially unaware.

The Lotus Elise can really only go around on tracks at a good clip or maybe take a trip with a squashy bag to Fitness Universe. Speed and acceleration impose huge costs on a car if they are to be prioritized. Demanding a lot of room inside the car constrains handling though in real world conditions a Ford Transit will get as quickly from Paris to Dijon nearly as fast as an Aventador.

Broadly, compromise is a thing for the head and unswerving focus is a thing for the heart. Eventually one can greatly admire a balanced design. That’s not quite good enough in the showroom where visceral impulses are the ones that make sales. At least relatively visceral impulses: is the Golf a car for the viscerally rational?

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

5 thoughts on “Theme: Compromise – The Paradox of Failure”

  1. Look back at any of those authoritative lists of ‘100 Great Designs’ and see how many of them pass the test of ages. Those original iPhones that design fetishists queued in the rain for 3 hours to get, then took home and let their fingers caress until …. well, they sit unloved at the back of a drawer somewhere.

    And even if you can look at a product and say it’s perfect, nothing could look better and fulfill its function better, it is a failure because, however good, it won’t have the ability to keep the loyalty of its fickle owners. Of course VW are an object lesson in the perils of believing otherwise. Having cleverly ingrained the ‘iconic and timeless’ (as they wouldn’t have said back then) status of the Beetle in its customers’ minds, they ended up believing it themselves, and their inability to see its many failures nearly ended the company.

    1. Eventually every design becomes a failure as needs change. Bristow´s Patented Horse Trough of 1872 won gold medals at the Paris Exposition of 1873. It was the sine qua non of troughs and Prince Albert had two of them for his prize horses. But today they are only collectors´items. I was thinking of the fact that, narrowly, a design is a failure the moment it is launched and can only be so. The more uncompromising a car is the smaller its audience (the price is too high or the ability too limited) and less compromising a car is the less it excels and a peer can be found to do any one thing better. To their credit, VW found a way to appear uncompromising: fastidious design. That is something people notice but which does not impede the compromises elsewhere. I won´t say I think it´s inspiring yet customers clearly like the proposition.

    2. But you’ve chosen an example (horse trough) whose use became redundant. But that shouldn’t preclude us from praising Messrs Bristow’s effort. In an alternative world it’s still in production, but in carbon fibre.

      In cars there were steps forward (say compound curved glass) that allowed for more sculpted design which, inevitably, made what went before look compromised. Otherwise, assuming our hypothetical party of aliens were to be presented with Golfs Mark 1 to 7, how would they order them? Would they think Golf 1 was the latest, since VW had managed to make it more compact? Or would they think it was Golf 4, since it was the most aesthetically pleasing. Unless they subscribed to the universal edict of Sensual Purity in which case they’d judge it, correctly, to be the one with the most creases and vents.

      I find my iPhone 6 worse looking than its predecessor.

    3. iPhone 6 is a good example how marketing-led iteration can be problematic in design terms. Speak to any Apple aficionado and most of them will admit that iPhone design probably peaked with the 4/4S/5. But Apple must offer visible differentiation to keep shifting units, so off they go. Rumour is that the 8 (coincidentally the 10 year anniversary of the iPhone) may revert to glass front and back with a metal bezel all round.

  2. Interesting article. From my own lowly position as a graphic designer I see these compromises being enacted every day. A graphics solution is by necessity a compromise between the client’s expectations, their budget, and sometimes most crucially, their desire to shoehorn in as much content as possible. Of course, car manufacturers are in exactly the same boat, except their budgets run into the billions, and the consequences of failure are so much keener.

    Anyway, the picture at the top of the article: is that a group photo of absolutely everyone employed at Lotus now?

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