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?