When something I made fails — does that mean I am myself a failure? No. In fact, failure is necessary on the way to success.

If you only do what you know and do it very, very well, chances are that you won't fail. You'll just stagnate, and your work will get less and less interesting, and that's failure by erosion

— Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit [At least, I assume so. I’ve not been able to verify this quote in my paper copy of the book yet. Source to be confirmed!]

How we see others' work

How we see others' work

How to count success

Any failure will feel daunting if we compare our own unfiltered output to someone else’s Instagram-style filtered list of only successes. The thing is, we do not know how much unremarkable, or just plain bad work someone they to make before they arrived at a thing they liked enough to share.

So, when counting your successful work, give some credit to the things that do not seem successful. They may be "ugly" or broken or boring. You still needed to make them on the way to that better thing down the line.

What actually happens

What actually happens

Failure in exploratory work

Artists have a helpful word to call something a designer might consider to be a failed attempt - it’s study. Studies are preparatory sketches, documented ideas that never made it to the finished piece, or drafts of works that were never completed. The word study gives these unfinished bits a noble, useful feeling. A study has very little to do with the work I eventually may count as successful. However, I would not have gotten to the good one without first going through a ton of not-so-good.

Beyond calling most work “studies” and feeling better just through that - consider that even a spectacular failure is already two steps out of three toward success. Let’s see:

  1. Make something (check!)
  2. Figure out what (if anything) doesn’t work (check!)
  3. Make something that works well

Failure in client work

In design projects for a client, the results will not only need to work for me, but for many other people - the client, the collaborator, and of course the user. Failure will mean I’m likely letting down all those people, and might be causing various other things that depended on me to go wrong. But this is why we build iteration, planning and sprints into client-work projects. Even when the overall result cannot afford to fail, we can allow experimentation and risk inside individual controlled “buckets” within it.

Being ready to fail on a UX design project may look like an allotment of a set amount of time to try a new way to implement an infographic, and if it does not work reliably - fall back onto a proven (if less exciting) method.

Productive use of failure

Failure trains the ability to recognize what has worked and what has not. This is a valuable skill. It’s a sure method to move forward, like in the Jackson Pollock splash painting experiment.

In creative projects I do for my own exploratory pleasure, I’ve noticed that it’s good to roll with the accidents and see where they land me. I’ve also learned that a bit of structure never hurts, and it is not necessary to allow the first paint splatter I see dictate the course of the rest of the exercise. I allow myself to throw things away. (Sometimes.)

Tl; Dr

Failure is an essential part of making anything. We need it in the design practice, just like we need it in art. It can feel internal to you, and it can be difficult to get a handle of it - but use it productively, and it will move your work forward.


Addendum - take a few minutes to listen or read: J. K. Rawling’s 2008 Harvard University Commencement Address “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination”

Maria Matveevathird-9