Designers: Dare to Fail

There are many degrees of failure in the world of design. This is a hard truth that every designer has to learn one way or another. A hard knock lesson that has the ability to be the best teacher a designer could ask for, or completely crush their spirit. Dealing with our failures is never easy, especially when a personal connection is involved. These failures can appear throughout the design process, but each failure can be seen as an opportunity. So where do we go to learn how to deal with and learn from our failures? Reach way back and consult the great Sun Tzu and his masterpiece ‘The Art of War’.

It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.

The entire profession of design is one rooted in failure, for without it there would be no need for designers. Designers exist to come in, assess what has been failing, and offer up solutions for the future. Even the process of creating that solution is made up of a variety of failures that lead the designer to a single golden idea. The more we design, the more failures we are exposed to, and the better our work becomes in the future for having learned what not to do. Luckily, making mistakes in a design doesn’t always lead to death and mayhem like it can when conducting a battle, but the principles are the same. In order to truly use the power of failure to our advantage, we must experience it and not back down when an overwhelming challenge presents itself.

Another advantage the world of design has over that of warfare is the fact that we always have the chance to look back at our ‘battles’, even when we failed. It’s important to take the time and look back at a project once complete to gauge what worked well and more importantly what didn’t. If we want to learn and improve we should review past events in a conversation that includes everyone that contributed to the project. Stakeholders, sponsors, developers, designers, and project management all contributed something to the success, or lack there of, of a project. The outcome of this conversation is an understanding of what needs to be replicated in future projects, and suggestions to processes that failed to deliver. While pride might be the only real casualty of this conversation, everyone should leave the meeting with an understanding of how to avoid similar mistakes that plagued the project in the future.

The general who thoroughly understands the advantages that accompany variation of tactics knows how to handle his troops.

There is no such thing as a ‘silver bullet’ method for designers. Many of us have an underlying process which we try to follow as closely as possible, but modifications are made to it over the course of a project. This ability to adapt and compromise is the single greatest skill that can help anyone deal with failures. When the inevitable mistake occurs, it’s a true fight or flight situation and the demeanor one takes towards it speaks not only to their professionalism, but to their natural talent as a designer. Any design project can be plagued with the unexpected, be it last minute feature requests that ‘have’ to be in the final solution or budget changes that move the delivery date up two months. Taking these random events in stride and using them to help propel the project to completeness is the true sign of a master at their craft. Just like a great general, the battlefield is always being assessed and battle plans adjusted to meet current needs.

Being able to adapt to a given situation can be made easier by keeping a catalog of past warning signs that at the time were missed, but later identified as the reason for failing. By having an understanding of these warning signs, it’s possible to already have the means of dealing with problems as they appear. This ability to think on your feet and maintain a sense of calm while chaos reigns around you can be fostered and learned. It isn’t the talent of a few, but rather a skill of the experienced. And the first step to learning this skill is by acknowledging that whatever process you’re following today probably won’t work for you tomorrow.

To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength; to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear.

Effective communication can be seen as bringing in the reserves when a battle takes a turn for the worse. Taking in the situation and coming up with a revised plan that is easily explained to all parties involved can make or break the success of a project. Failing back on excuses, pointing fingers at others, or simply pointing out the obvious pales in comparison to the benefits of offering a solution that helps get a project back on track. A well written email or a timely placed phone call to put a client at ease, lessens the severity of the situation and fosters a sense of partnership. It’s this partnership that allows a project team to get past all the bad things that can creep up, and continue to work.

The key to maintaining effective communication is ensuring everyone involved with a project is accountable for their own actions. The current rise of the Agile Development Process has helped this sense of accountability grow with the advent of daily standups. Unfortunately, it isn’t as common place as it should be. ‘Fessing up to problems while the issue is still in its infancy allows the team as a whole to develop a solution. The delay caused by these baby issues is minuscule compared to if they are allowed to fester. Meaningful communication over the course of a project is hinged on the accountability of the members of the project team.

Hence the saying: The enlightened ruler lays his plans well ahead; the good general cultivates his resources.

In order to truly harness the power of failure, it’s important that the leadership behind an organization encourages a culture that is forgiving and encourages the natural exploration and growth that can come from failure. If an organization’s leadership blames others for the mistakes they themselves make, than there is no desire for the worker bees to accept their own shortcomings. It’s a shame when people, or whole teams, are let go because of failures that they may or may not have been the cause of. Even when fault can be placed on them, drastic measures shouldn’t be taken unless the failure can be attributed to simple negligence.

Companies like Dyson and Honda are prime examples of companies who have turned many failures into great successes. They put a considerable amount of effort into fostering an environment where people are encouraged to fail and to use those failures to reach a particular goal. People are encouraged to explore and test ideas with the goal of throwing out as many bad ideas as possible. If the traditional punishment that is associated with failure is removed from the equation, people are more willing to test out something crazy just to see if it might work. The overall leadership sets the stage for this type of corporate culture, and it’s the individual managers that use the flexibility allowed to them to push their teams to create greatness.

Failing at something sucks, or at least that is what we are lead to believe. The truth is: without failure, nothing would ever improve and innovation would be impossible. If there is one constant, it’s that what works well today will eventually become deficient and need to replacing. Since we’ve already identified that the world of design is made up of failures, it’s time to stop hiding from this mythical boogie man. It’s time to open our eyes and see failure as the beautiful muse it is and as just another tool to use in order to create awesomeness.

Brad Nunnally

Brad Nunnally is a User Experience Design Consultant at Perficient based in St. Louis, MO. Aside from writing, plotting UX world domination, and tweeting a whole bunch , he fills his time playing with his son and dog.

7 comments on this article

  1. There are also different types of failure that might be worth reflecting about… there could be a failure in the methods to engage users in the design process for instance, which is distinct from an overall failure of the “final” design.

    In terms of research, I do not think that one can even really speak in terms of “failure”, since “failure” merely implies a kind of learning that could be valuable in the future.

    I always like seeing the topic of failure in Interaction Design addressed. No serious discipline can avoid this topic, and as you very nicely put it : “The entire profession of design is one rooted in failure”


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  3. I think this is a great article.

    I walked away with the idea that we are all in in this together. We are building off each others failures and that is what makes the industry stronger.

    I recommend increasing the line height a bit, its a hard to read the paragraphs when the spacing is so tight.

  4. Thanks Pedro and Blue Sail.

    Regarding the line height, I’ll see what I can do to fix that.

  5. Brian, it looks like you failed to consult with your copy editor b4 publishing this article. The misspellings, lack of agreement, and erroneous apostrophes are legion. Isn’t part of your message supposed to well-wrought communications?

    E.g.: “Failing back on excuses,” “Fessing up to problems while the issue is still in it’s infancy,” “miniscul,” “Company’s like Dyson and Honda”…

    The ideas are good, but their escritorial rendering has way too many excreta.

  6. Nicky,

    Thanks for pointing out those errors. All I can say is thanks and I’ll just have to learn from this obvious failure. 😀 That said, one of the Dudes has gone in and made some corrections

    I’m glad you thought the idea has merit, it’s something that I don’t think gets enough focus in our industry.

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