A Polemical Letter on Maintenance and Profit and Mr. David Pye

A Polemical Letter on Maintenance and Profit and Mr. David Pye
Written by Guest Author Lee David Engdahl


‘The art of design, which chooses that the things we use shall look as they do, has a very much wider and more sustained impact than any other art.’

      – David Pye, The Nature & Aesthetics of Design


‘Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

      – Adage supposedly from aircraft maintenance.


i  personal ideas of maintenance

The word maintenance may conjure up tooth-brushing, hull varnishing, re-painting of barns, or other tedious chores to the end of longevity and utility, which all can be neglected. Maintenance is sometimes a tedious activity; repair requires skills or the onus of necessity, as in hardship or poverty or when one is isolated on the ocean or in extreme environments. It is the ideal of the medical profession since an ounce of prevention (or maintenance) may be worth a pound of cure, as the American polymath Benjamin Franklin opined. [1] Maintaining the body is preferable to dramatic repairs. Yet repairing things instead of throwing them into distant anonymous landfills is not always possible or habitual. Not everyone can afford to resole their trainers or fix a laptop or telephone, mend their clothing, or restore a 1932 Ford or Rolled TLR camera. Most consumers are at the mercy of economics not theory. Besides, many modern devices or machines are designed for zero maintenance but there are compelling reasons to advocate for maintenance. Mining technological middens in the future may be for resources rather than for anthropology. They may also offer up reservoirs of design philosophy, expectation, materials science, and ideas of maintenance to excavators of the future. 

As I mentioned above, maintenance is a necessity of the sailor on the sea, the astronaut, or the isolate in an inhospitable environment. They are a rather small sample of humanity. When maintenance becomes a habit rather than an ideal I believe it will provide ecological benefit to the planet; maintaining is a habit and like most habits can be encouraged and developed. However, the most maintenance many may occupy themselves with, is in changing the oil in their car, or the bag on a vacuum cleaner, a filter in a water tap, or perhaps cleaning a sewing machine of fluff. Some devices or machines or artefacts are designed for maintenance. As technology has improved its reach towards longevity and economy maintenance has become less common.

The links between maintenance and its influence on the design of things and systems are often hidden. One of my favourite thinkers on design and by implication maintenance is David Pye, architect, designer, and craftsman. Pye taught furniture design at the Royal College of Art, London. He wrote several books, one on craftsmanship, one on ships, and another entitled The Nature & Aesthetics of Design (Herbert Press, 1995) that is discussed below with reference to maintenance.

We swim in a world of things, we tool-using primates, many of them brutal in their design and designed with obsolescence in mind – as if we have endless energy, time, and materials. The water bottle, the meal package, the automobile, the cheap blouse or pair of shoes are things made for a purpose to be discarded when they no longer serve a purpose. This is often by design, the better to support an idea of profit and a brand, the corporation, or urban system. Things that last do not produce constant profits. One application of science (engineering and maths) to the construction of things makes them more economical in use of materials. This economy of design or production is usually at the service of profit not maintenance or ecology. One has only to look at the early steam engines of Watt or printing presses before 1940. This may be the major difference between our world and the world, say, of Brunel or other Victorian designers and engineers. Often this economy is the true mother of invention and not necessity. [2] Victorian designers made things that had to be maintained because of their design, available materials, and aesthetics.

In a little-known book, The Nature & Aesthetics of Design, Pye enumerates six requirements for a successful design: arrangement of mechanisms of device (kinematics); engineering of components for the device or thing for maximum utility; access (maintenance) to thing or system; economy of production of system or thing or device; appearance (workmanship) of the product or system. [3] I say system because many products or things exist in conjunction with other things but first meet the requirements of a design such as the infrastructure of a city or battleship or cruise liner. This is what Donne meant in that line ‘No man is an Island,’ for we often forget that we live in a web of relationships, whether personal or of nature.

It is requirement number four, access (which Pye calls a special case of two or the geometrical arrangement of objects in a design) that applies to maintenance. [4] Access is affected by the arrangement of parts in a design, as any auto mechanic will attest. Just as economy and appearance appear to have the most influence on the design of things or systems, access is too governed by design. The ordinary user does not design many products or things for maintenance. Many things are merely made for short-term gain and actively constructed to resist maintenance. [5] 

Automobiles are the perfect example, since they consist of thousands of parts and interlocking systems in the idea of maintenance; they meet Pye’s requirements for design in practice. Anyone who has worked on a modern automobile will argue to the complexity of their construction. The ‘access’ to them is often intricate. Repairing a power steering pump may require removing the air conditioning pump or disassembling the radiator fastenings, et cetera. Maintenance may require special tools or fixtures or sequences of disassembly dictated by the engineering of complex systems all jammed into the engine bay. This is why many modern vehicles are designed to be maintenance-free for a set period of time, perhaps 150 to 200 thousand miles.

A laptop presents similar problems. Often the labour required to repair outpaces the expense of simple replacement. The logic boards of computers is another case in point. [6] Where computers are still viable, outside the short cycle of obsolescence of these devices, repairing them outweighs the economic expense with their continued utility. Legacy computer systems in the DOD, Post Office, or elsewhere are a special case where maintenance is more desirable than replacement.   

The most common reaction of designers to profit may be to engineer the systems for relatively short longevity, for if things last they make no profits obviously. The system of commerce in things requires some degree of obsolescence (or so we have been persuaded). Some degree of supra-longevity is allowed in luxury goods such as expensive motor cars like Rolls Royce or Bentley. In the classic cliché in America at least, ‘You get what you pay for.’ [7] Still, the assumption in the marketplace by consumers now as in the past is that quality is purchased rather than expected. 

One of the divisions of quality and maintenance seems to be that of the private-versus-commercial goods design. An oven designed for a restaurant receives far more use than an oven in a private household. It may be larger, better insulated, and by its design intentions last far longer than the product for a householder. It can be repaired or maintained over its lifetime. Some other machines are designed for maintenance, such as luxury automobiles but the same intention applies in housing, watches, clothing, and yachts where the difference is not so much in appearance as in robustness of design and longevity. It may also include more provision for access and thus maintenance.

Another splendid example of maintenance is the shoe. A Nike sneaker or trainer may demand a high price for its appearance, branding, or design but allow for no access, no maintenance of uppers or sole. [8] It is designed for short-term use and maximum profits, as is much clothing or the world of fashion generally. There are exceptions, such as bespoke shoes from Lobb, Meerman, Yanagimachi, or Waplinger. These shoes are designed to be maintained, though their purchase price may be a many times that of even an expensive trainer or running shoe. [9] Everyone may have a private tale of that comfortable shoe which went into the bin because it was not repairable, or because the cost of repair exceeded the cost of replacement. 

For example, recently I purchased a pair of Birkenstocks that had soles that wore out prematurely. The cost to resole them was very nearly 2/3rds of the price of a new pair. Even then, when I selected a different sole they separated again, which meant I had to re-glue them myself several times. This failure could be caused by a) I pushed them beyond their engineered limits, or b) some of the materials selected derived from economics or the cost of quality. In any case, I bought them because of the brand and its longevity, not for economy. Apart from that, the design and appearance of these shoes is encouragingly robust – the leather uppers and cork foot-bed are sound. The additional point was the difficulty in finding a shoe repair shop. Since few people re-sole their shoes, there is less market to support repair shops, so it is now a luxury trade similar to farriers re-shoeing horses, although shoes are common and horses are not. 

Here in the hinterlands of Northern California, I will say that I was nurtured to attempt to repair everything, build my own device first, and extract the most use of a device or system possible. [10] So, while my academic training is in poetry and medievalism, I relish repairing exotic machinery. [11] The germ of this habit is without a doubt owed to the historical events of the Great Depression (1929-1938) in the US. It may also be a feature of the United States as a colony and the enduring ‘outpost mentality’ of the American experience. 

Fixing a device or thing returns it to use and lessens the burden on the ecosystem in labour, energy and materials. This habit is a predilection that may not be as common as it was once as during the global collapse of the Great Depression. However, not everyone enjoys working with tools or the trial and error of this type of design and instruction. Most people would rather not deal with repairs or renewals. Most people do not expect longevity, merely economy and a high degree of appearance. But appearance has nothing to do with the utility of a design. [12]

An object need not be pretty to work, nor made of the best materials if the engineering is sound and access is provided. Elegance does not always equal longevity or value. Comparing the design philosophy of the Russian space programme with that of the American is a good example of this truth. [13] Utility, not beauty, governs survival in outer space, as it may as well at sea, in inclement weather, and underneath the earth or ocean. Economy in these situations has no bearing; access or maintenance is part of the design philosophy and purpose of the device or system. 

At the risk of sounding polemical, maintenance requires less belief in profit-making and more in the idea of reasonably priced longevity. Only the credulous would imagine this change would be without resistance. Corporations exist for one reason – to provide the maximum profits for their small cadre of shareholders. Every ‘thing’ requires energy and resources to exist that often produce pollution or reduce choice.  

My habit, since I enjoy solving mechanical problems and issues with access and materials, is to maintain, repair, re-new and rarely discard anything although computer and telephonic devices are an exception. [14] It should seem clear that maintenance is essential to preserve the health of the ecosystem. The energy waste in disposing of manufactured goods, the potential pollution of these things, and the waste of labour-hours should persuade that maintenance as an ethos is a sensible decision. 

The crux is short-term profits and an expectation on the part of users than obsolescence is a fixed condition. The other issue is what Pye called ‘access,’ itself a function of how a device or thing or system is designed. As I have said above some things are just not designed for repair, full stop, whether for economy or insurance liability or poor design. Above, I have mentioned several obvious examples in this dance between design and intention– others abound. 

Allowing corporate short-term profit-making to control the design of our physical world should be a matter of consumer or end-user choice.[15] I do not believe it is untoward (or hyperbolic) to suggest that maintenance is essential for the survival of our habitats and perhaps our species in the not-distant future. [16] One might even suggest that maintenance is the conscience of ecological renewal; in a similar vein, as education reflects the culture, so does maintenance reflect the larger global capitalist culture we all encounter whether we will it or not. Of course, there are those who would say, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ [17] although this maxim is more often used to support special interests or inefficient custom than as a legitimate caution referring to the world of maintenance. Every machine or system can and will break down; the only way to ensure a difference is the habit of maintenance.




ii  ideas of personal and public change


Ideas of change, personal or public, depend upon cultural support. The work of Louis Pasteur in germ theory was adopted for practical reasons – it saved lives in operatories and doctor’s offices, not out of theoretical altruism. The steam engines of Newcomen and Watt were adopted for reasons of utility and profit, not imagining their future effects on climate. None of us are prescient nor farseeing of our motives and intentions.

Nonetheless, in a world of things designed for maintenance there are practical benefits. The recent spate of ‘weather events’ around the globe should persuade that climate alteration is a reality, not a possibility in the distant future. The connexion between climate alteration and maintenance may not be obvious. One result of a throwaway society, of things designed for limited lifetimes or for no access to maintenance is consumption of natural resources, pollution, and contributions to carbon production. The steam engines powered the Industrial Revolution, changed society, and laid the foundation for climate alteration. 

Human culture needs to change, and leading this change is the responsibility of the corporation in its contribution to the problem.[18] Pangloss was an accurate description of those who deny except that one cannot retire to tend a garden if the world is on fire, flooded, or polluted. [19] For this reason, it seems simple to say that maintenance should be a part of righting the balance of nature.

As I have suggested above at several points, the crux of the problem seems that corporations (and people) expect short-term profits, and maintenance requires a loss of profits for shareholders. Therefore obsolescence, cheap products, limited designs, low quality, workforces paid low wages – all these factors militate against maintenance. Yet one singular aspect of all of these issues is the poverty of the designer’s control over the design for maintenance much less ecological production. As Pye reminded, in the quote as epigram for this letter, design does have a ‘sustained’ influence on the society. It reverberates, echoes, influences and takes on its own life. Of the necessary qualities for a successful design Pye enumerated, it is appearance or economy (of purchase) that bear most on its success but have nothing to do with maintenance. 

But poor design, corporate decisions, the lack of ethical regard for ethics and morality – all of these are choices made by the culture, affirmed by the culture, although often proposed, organised, and maintained by individuals. When America responded to the success of the Russian space program, it was national, territorial, and war-like however, the benefits in technological development associated with the so-called space race were immense. Design and technological innovation need not always run counter to common good.

Nonetheless, until the culture allows that quality is important, that maintenance is a formal requirement of a design, and that producers should be responsible, our system of production of things will continue to pollute the earth, diminish the futures of many, and enrich a few. We may believe that the idea of inequality is recent. There have always been waves of inequality, but never so many alive on this planet. For instance, during the early Middle Ages in England even the diet of the serfs or vassals differed from that of the elites, who ate far more protein than the peasants. [20] This created obvious different phenotypes and notions of luxury maintenance that are still with us in prestige goods with quality and longevity and access to maintenance. Ideals like maintenance for all are often at odds with this basic inequality.

While a single individual can rarely change history, alter a culture, or shape humanity some do point the way. Pasteur, Brunel, Watt and Newcomen are just a few sparklers. Those that do – and select your own examples – often do so for limited personal reasons that may have less interest in benefit to humanity. But I would argue, as many have done recently, that we are at a cultural crux – unless we alter our habits of consumption, the idea of inequality, and the comfort of class division, our earth will likely prove mostly inhospitable in the future. What one can do as an individual is repair, maintain, and encourage quality, access, and beauty of design in one’s daily life.




A portrait of a white man in a blue collard shirt.Guest Author: Lee David Engdahl
Pt. Reyes Station, California, USA, Earth.

Lee David Engdahl is from San Francisco, with degrees from Humboldt State (CA) and the University of Bristol (UK). He has worked variously as a carpenter, teacher, and letterpress printer-typographer but has always been fascinated with maintenance.

You can find Mr. Engdahl on LinkedIn here.



End notes

[1] Franklyn was commenting in 1735 in an unsigned letter to his own newspaper on the necessity for towns such as his own, Philadelphia, to protect itself from fire. The maxim has been used to persuade for maintenance in a variety of contexts.


[2] Pye, page 33, ‘Economy is the mother of most inventions, not necessity, unless in the sense of poverty and hardship.’


[3] Ibid, page 23


[4] Ibid, page 25.


[5] As an example, some welding helmets (with electronic filters  that prevent eye from the arc’s damage) use batteries that are not designed for routine replacement, perhaps for liability reasons, while the more expensive models do allow for battery replacement. 


[6] However, as an example see TCRS Circuit, of Palmdale, California: https://www.tcrscircuit.repair/whatwefix, accessed 9 August 2022. Repairing logic boards is necessary not a choice if one wishes to use elderly electronic devices. 


[7] Allegedly even the Chinese have an equivalent expression, yìfēn qián yìfēn huò, meaning if you pay little you will receive little quality.


[8] But see this site, https://lancashiresportsrepairs.co.uk/running-shoe-repairs-and-resoles/, accessed 9 August 2022 or https://nushoe.com/running-shoes-repair.html, so repairs of this sort are done as a luxury trade.


[9] Lobb bespoke shoes cost seven thousand dollars (US) with no trimmings, and a usual price for other bespoke cobblers is something on the order of three thousand dollars including a last shaped to one’s foot. The advantage of these shoes may lie in appearance first, but also the side effects of longevity, comfort, and artistic beauty.


[10] As a habit often maintenance is not personally economical or successful but it is a better tendency than rampant consumption, albeit a romantic tendency. My first ‘toy’ that I recall was an electric motor for a bomb-bay door in an airplane, which I took apart with great abandon, learning about kinematics, fasteners, and the nature of the machine.


[11] 1921 Kelley B cylinder Press (New Jersey), 1880 Golding 10 x 15 platen press (Massachusetts), 8mm Mauser (Czechoslovakia), Jag XJ-6 (England), Fiat 131 (Italy), Saab 900 (Sweden), Cummins 12v engine (Michigan), Olympia SM-3 typewriter (West Germany), Hermes Ambassador typewriter (Suisse), Brompton bicycle (England), etc.


[12] Pye, pages 35 and 79.


[13] See this summary assessment of Russian versus American space technology at the pivotal movement in 1957 when NASA became a political reality, https://history.nasa.gov/sputnik/july59.html, accessed 11 August 2022; and this fifty-year-on puff piece, https://www.nasa.gov/50th/50th_magazine/coldWarCoOp.html, accessed 11 August 2022.


[14] This letter was written on a 2010 Apple MBP, much repaired.


[15] The idea of the corporation is just that an idea, and could be modified in view of morality and ethos and long-term thinking.


[16] See Stephen Baxter, Flood (2008).


[17] In the interests of historical accuracy, https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/if-it-aint-broke-dont-fix-it.html accessed 11 August 2022.


[18] For example, watch a recent movie, ‘Ford versus Ferrari’ (2019) with maintenance, corporate responsibility and methodology in mind.


[19] Voltaire, Candide, is a reference that many schools have ceased to contain in their curricula. Pangloss was Candide’s tutor remarkable for insisting that this was the best of possible worlds regardless of events.

[20] One could argue that ‘fast food’ and ‘organic food’ have set up an equivalent opposition that is to say that inequality is a constant. See Kathy L Pearson, ‘Nutrition and the Early-Medieval Diet,’ Speculum, 72:1 (1997), pages 1-32 especially for her references for a sense of how diet was controlled by power (capital). Also, C M Woolgar, The Culture of Food in England 1200 – 1500 (Yale, 2016).