Designers, don’t underestimate failure at work

Experiencing and observing failure at work is highly undervalued skill for a designer to have. It’s priceless to have gained hard-earned professional insight, and almost all expertise and maturity depends on how to manage the risk of failure of all shapes and sizes.

Consider what your response might be to the following situations:

  • A development team that’s so focused on project delivery it ignores fundamental errors informed by user testing that requires additional effort to fix
  • A massive disconnect between what consumers and providers want, with your product providing value for both audience groups.
  • A misalignment between your product and technology leads about priorities and overall objectives for the project
  • One’s professional inability to deliver critical design solutions that meet both business and customer needs

You might argue that these are all different things, but they share a common trait of being treated as failures.

It’s easy to dismiss these things as inconveniences, externalities, or problems outside our immediate scope of influence, or dismiss oneself as an outcast or impostor, but I think designers have a unique vantage point from which they can help to unlock value for themselves, as well as with and for others.

However, if a designer to cannot understand the underlying nature of failures, how does one assist in designing solutions for it – across multiple levels? This is why reframing one’s orientation towards failure can help tip the scales towards favourable outcomes.

The key lies in the following things:

  • Understanding multiple perspectives and stories behind failure situations
  • Embracing curiousity and introspection to tease out opportunities hidden behind failures
  • Facilitating solutions that unlock value informed by learning

A mature designer is one who understands the value and means for recovering fast and finding ways to unlock opportunities behind those failures (My inspiration from this comes from John Maeda’s Interaction19 talk, where he talks not about failing fast, but recovering fast).

Also, designers are well placed to observe and experience failure in a multitude of ways. These are several situations why this is so:

  • Designers often have unique sensitivity into observing and uncovering mismatched vectors existing within situations, perspectives, effort and goals.
  • Designers, in an attempt to solve problems, need to cross chasms involving people and systems in different contexts, requiring much trial and error as well.
  • Working with people is hard, and with designers often being ‘temporary or situational experts and learners’, huge mistakes will be made to bridge that gap to work effectively with their colleagues, customers or users.
  • Sometimes, an over-emphasis on craft vs. solving actual problems presents huge opportunities for failure, misunderstanding and re-education.

Many of us want to contribute towards something resulting in positive outcomes, but how? It’s much easier to play the less-messy role of observing and being a critic or informant from the sidelines. However, it also doesn’t work to meddle in complex issues from the outside, or to attempt solving all problems in one go.

Instead of complaining, it’s perhaps better to look at the bigger picture, and seek help to understand multiple realities shaping everyone’s behaviour and interests. Tools like soft-systems methodology (Peter Checkland) or systems mapping can help with this. Incidentally, this has not often been in the formal realm of design practice, but it’s something we can get better at – if merely to inform ourselves about these worldviews.

Sometimes, design work can act as a Trojan horse to displace or reframe complex problems and situations between different groups of people, to help refocus everyone’s attention on what’s worth solving. Circular, heated debates can sometimes be diffused by evidencing complexities and disagreements with experiments, prototypes or stories – and the level of designer social savvy can tip the scales between a violent disagreement and broad acceptance of a new norm.

With proper care and tact, even process improvements can help unlock tangled, disconnected or imbalanced ways of working or situations. For example, we can opt to solve things across different time scales, re-scope things to yield the right-sized solutions, or be flexible to model new behaviours and leading by example.

Then, finally, being honest with oneself, and realising that sometimes, we ourselves are the cause of the problem. Understanding how to recover quickly and healthily from this, then re-addressing the situation in a positive new light, can add years to a designer’s maturity level.

One might ask — shouldn’t this apply to non-designers too? Well, yes. But I think the unique blend of designers’ sensitivity and ability to work across the spectrum from social to systems does provoke an a more optimistic way of working despite its challenges, that’s worthy of our investment and too important not to ignore.

One last trick, I sense, is to give ourselves the space and time to do so.


Thanks to Kim Lenox, Fabien Marry and Martina Hodges-Schell for listening to me during my recent struggles with failure and giving me sage work advice.

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