Matt Soar | Essays

Fail Again, Fail Better

Inverted G
Bread shop on Sherbrooke St. W., Montréal, 2008: Amateur mistake or professional flourish? Photograph by Matt Soar.

The late magician and comedian Tommy Cooper made a lifelong virtue out of failure. Discovering early on in his career that his magic tricks delighted audiences even when they went wrong, this manic Welshman turned his immensely popular stage performances into a feast of failed conjuring. By supplementing this purposeful bumbling with the occasional failure-free trick, he also maintained the element of surprise.

For the rest of us, however, the idea of failure seems to be straightforward enough: mistakes, both large and small, are something to be avoided; the opposite of success; the currency of losers. They’re expected of the young as a necessary part of learning, of course, but increasingly less tolerated with the maturity that supposedly grants us enough experience and accumulated wisdom to succeed in life more or less flawlessly. This in spite of the fact that creative luminaries such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh ("There is hope in honest error; none in the icy perfections of the mere stylist") and Samuel Beckett ("Try again. Fail again. Fail better.") continually remind us that we should perhaps openly embrace failure rather than assiduously avoiding it.

So, what of productive failure with respect to graphic design and typography? The idea of failing again and again for a reason? Does it somehow help to define the limits of professional practice, as in: "If you’re making mistakes it’s because you’re not a professional and you don’t know how to use the tools of design properly?" Is it tolerable or even necessary in terms of process? Perhaps the overriding factor is scale: small failures, however numerous, might be taken in stride, but if the failure is big enough, it’s a bone fide disaster (think Florida ballot, or Tacoma Narrows Bridge). Then again, the movie Apollo 13, about an abortive moonshot, confounds this notion, as a life-threatening failure of engineering is recast as a triumph of scientific and technical ingenuity in the face of terrible adversity.

After taking a little time to reflect on these ideas, and in talking to creative types about what it might mean to Fail Again (which is, not coincidentally, the theme of this year’s DesignInquiry), I heard some interesting things, and invite Design Observer’s readers to add to, or challenge, these ruminations — or perhaps even to confess to failures I’d never even imagined. (And all due credit to those I’ve already spoken to: trust designers to be humble enough to be willing to talk about failure.) That’s not to say that there aren’t design failures we would prefer no one knew about, like the award-winning calendar I have on my wall: right there between the 28th and 30th September is the 39th. (True to form, though, it was actually one of the calendar’s designers who tipped me off.)

Failing Again: A Routine and Necessary Part of Creative Practice
From our earliest days in school many of us are encouraged to court failure; to learn by our mistakes. Nancy Skolos remembers that one of her teachers used to say, "A good failure is worth a lot of mediocre successes." To varying degrees, we carry this sensibility through into professional practice. For example, Jonathan Hoefler says, "Increasingly I think about the work that I do not so much as a directed effort, but as the ability to recognize accidents and interpret them productively. Even failures have their place, since without them there’s no progress: anything that’s truly 'experimental' has to run the risk of failure." Hoefler describes these moments as "happy accidents:" "Several times a day, some misstep on the computer produces an unexpected result, and sometimes these results are fetching, intriguing, even provocative." Hoefler — like Skolos and her partner Thomas Wedell — hangs onto his 'failures' for potential use in future projects.

Deb Littlejohn recounts two particular instances of techno-serendipity: one in which the clutter of discarded bits and pieces at the edge of the computer screen ended up looking dramatically better than the artfully arranged stuff on the poster she was designing in the centre of the screen. The second story involves creating a poster for the Walker Art Center: faced with a sudden Photoshop malfunction ("the screen completely freaked out and totally garbled the image – totally redrew the pixels in the wrong order") Littlejohn had the foresight to do a quick screengrab; the resulting image was not only "really beautiful," it actually suited the poster’s theme to a tee.

Paula Scher goes further still, locating a fear of failure at the core of her design practice: "I've spent my whole career overcoming my failures….My tendency to aggressively fill up spaces comes from an inability to be succinct, reductive, or simply to know when to stop. I tend to overdo everything because I am always very self-conscious about what I have made and I want to hide it by covering it up with more stuff. I’ve learned that if I keep on going with it to the point of obsessive ridiculousness, it starts to get good." (Here she makes specific reference to her justly celebrated Noise/Funk posters for The Public Theater, her design for the exterior of the New Jersey Performing Art Center School, and her map paintings.)

While Stefan Sagmeister is more circumspect about the productive role of failure, his anecdote about one such moment is hilarious. A few years back he commissioned Ken Miki to design a six-page spread featuring one of his maxims (in this case "Money does not make me happy"). When the piece finally appeared in a technology/art/design magazine called .copy it became painfully evident, if only to Sagmeister, that a rather unhappy accident had occurred during repro and printing. The legend now read: "Money Does Does Make Me Happy." As he notes dryly, "Next month the magazine ran a tiny correction: Stefan Sagmeister now thinks money does not make him happy after all." This abject failure — not a failure to communicate so much as a 180-degree reversal of meaning — actually provided the inspiration for his design of an installation on the exterior of a huge Austrian casino: the main façade reads "MONEY:" only by passing down a side street can one see the rest of the maxim.

Failing Again: A Key Feature of "Obscene" Amateur Practice
Historian Philip Meggs once described desktop publishing as the arrival of nothing less than the “obscene typography machine”. More recently, Ellen Lupton’s Design It Yourself initiative has been interpreted by some designers as a dangerous form of popularization that can only be damaging to our hard-won professional status. While, sadly, anyone with a pulse can call themselves a graphic designer (and indeed in the UK anyone can call themselves an engineer, as in "plumbing engineer"), an alternative view is that these kinds of developments are not as cataclysmic as they might at first seem. Where some see only "obscene" typography and design, others sense the development of a vibrant vernacular (which is precisely what architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown suggested we learn from Las Vegas in the 1970s).

What might this mean for typography and design, right now? Do we just continue to "borrow" from vernacular forms (think of delightful typefaces such as Gotham and Los Feliz) thereby converting them into "proper" design tools, or can we more fully embrace popular "mistakes?" This may depend on whether we see typography only as a rightly cloistered, esoteric activity, a treasured possession; or, alternatively, as one which is an increasingly ubiquitous tool, alive to the legions of curious non-designers who showed up to see Helvetica, for example, or have, at the very least, discovered the font files lurking on their computers. Perhaps typography should be treated like language itself, obeying an implicit set of rules, of course, but developing organically (a point lexicographers have understood for centuries, as Simon Winchester points out in his book The Professor and the Madman). Put more bluntly, perhaps we should heed the words of the Critical Art Ensemble when they warn that “dismissing the amateur out of hand can have a detrimental impact on the practical aspects of applying a specialization….New versions of expertise must be constructed.”

Failing Again: Not an Option?
It seems clear that failure is far more complex than it might at first appear, in terms of "routine" creative process, for sure, but especially as it relates to the fraught boundaries between professional practice and amateurism. Perhaps an expanded discussion among typographers and designers will serve to highlight some of these dynamics. In the meantime, the final word belongs to DesignInquiry regular Nancy Skolos. Remembering her design for a chair that was striking in its appearance but very uncomfortable, she says, “If you really want to fail, it helps to cross borders into other disciplines.”

Matt Soar writes about graphic design and teaches intermedia production at Concordia University. He is a board member of DesignInquiry, an associate editor of the new journal Design and Culture (due for launch in Spring 2009), and a member of the Teaching Designers Network.

Posted in: Business, Theory + Criticism

Comments [19]

That was really nice and refreshing Matt.

I am reminded of the saying 'The sooner you make your mistakes, the sooner you get it right.' (If someone knows the attribution, please advise). In other words, one has to embrace failure, not as the end, but as an inevitability on the road to success. If you don't let yourself examine all possibilities, including 'bad' ones, do you really understand the task and why you should do what you do?

More cynically, a mistake is an accident one failed to take advantage of and credit for.

Very interesting reading Matt.

This reminds me to always rethink and question my ways of approaching creativity and we all need to be reminded that once in a while. No one can fully explore new avenues, if their only thought is their fear of getting lost or hitting a dead end...

it sucks that one really effective way i learn is by making mistakes. but i do learn from them.

like the time, during maybe my first year of being a designer, i printed a self-mailer piece with a tear-off BRC on 100# text instead of 100# cover. apparently the post office has some silly little rule that BRCs need to be printed on a heavy enough weight stock. i caught it on press . . . but at least i got to yell "stop the presses!"

or, just this past year, i was messing around in illustrator and trying merge/combine some flourishes into one file so they would be the positive shapes, when, by way of experimentation, i ended up merging them so they were the negative shapes, which i actually thought worked better and the piece turned out beautifully.

Failure is always the leading element of any success. It is rare that a thing/idea is developed whole, fully formed, without revision and exploration. I think the idea of learning from our mistakes is one of the fundamental mantras of my creative (and other) endeavors.

Two additional bits:
- Winston Churchill on success: "Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm."
- W+K advice: Fail Harder.

Interesting article Matt, opening up a lot of interesting questions. I love the Beckett quote, a mantra to live by. However I think there's a bit of a confusing meshing between the idea of genuine failure (with its darker undertones and painful repercussions), process oriented mistakes (the happy accident) and the use of the vernacular (or the professionally "wrong").

I find this confusion nice actually, allowing for some theoretical leaps. How are these ideas interrelated and what terminology can we use to define them?

I've certainly failed enough times in the past and only wish I had had more happy accidents to save me at the time.

Mistakes or 'Mistake-ism' should always be embraced by designers. It opens our mind to new alternatives and can lead to exciting design episodes. There has been an excellent book released by Anna Gerber titled 'All Messed Up: predictable Graphics that shows a number of these happy accidents that you just wouldn't think of sitting or sketching.

Woops! I ment 'All Messed Up: Unpredictable Graphics. Dam new apple keyboard!

Where is the failure in the "boulangerie" picture ?
something borrowed

thanks for the article, which was very apt considering that I got some samples of a job from the printer this morning and I'm sure they've run with the wrong proof ... or it could be my memory ... or it could be I signed the proof off without paying enough attention because I had to get the bus.

mistakeism is fine and I've taken advantage before now, but I find once you've tied down your happy accidents and the client's signed it off the struggle to get it back from the printer looking right is pretty depressing (and I work with pretty good printers).


Andi Chapple

Where is the failure in the "boulangerie" picture ?
Posted by: something borrowed on March 20, 2008 07:43 AM

I think the vinyl lettering has "failed" - as in because either the surface reacts poorly to it, or it has expired, or through exposure to the elements, or some combination of the above - resulting in the edges peeling away, transforming a clean edged typeface into what you see - sort of an elemental ripple filter ... i think ...


the 'g' is installed upside down.

Doug Bartow

Most of the 'failures' mentioned seem to be plain human error (typos etc.). What about the event of creating work that doesn't hit the mark or that doesn't yield positive responses or just isn't good. In my opinion, that's a larger part of the relation of design to failure.

There are of course the procedural and workflow mistakes which are extremely valuable to learn from, as in Andi maybe signing the wrong proof above, but the design itself can be so subjective that the argument over whether it is a mistake can change with time and tastes.
Here's my favourite recent one I've seen where mistakes in design and type fight for prominence.
Or this amateur sign where a lizard may be pleasuring a woman. Crappy, or crappy like a fox?

The Worst of Perth
Art, Architecture, Design & Humanity
The Worst of Perth

i realize there is a difference between an error/mistake and an overall conceptual or design failure.

this article talked about both and i feel they do go somewhat hand in hand.

a mistake, such as the wrong paper stock or quickly signing off on a proff and missing some glaring error, is still a failure because the designer should have known better, it is what they are supposedly a "professional" at doing.

(un?)fortunately i dont have any huge marketing-related failures to share with you guys yet. but im still young so maybe sometime soon i will; )

Yeah but, are mistakes failures? 'Make a mistake so you can fix it' is the creative approach many artists use to succeed, but to fail? - not so much. This article gives some welcome attention the labor of productive mistakes and 'naive' efforts in the processes and products of our creativity - thanks - but i wonder if it may be a bit sneaky to conflate mistakes with failure rather than pointing out causal relationships with either success or failure (i.e.the opposite of success).

Our fridge magnet doesn't credit an author to this one, but here's another quote for the list -
"Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want."

"Honour your error as a hidden intention."

Brian Eno & Peter Schmidt, Oblique Strategies.
John Coulthart

Thanks to Prof. Soar for this stimulating topic.

I think that one would find looking out into the world today (ever?) that the graphic design problems/opportunities far outweigh the numbers actually graduating from design education academies, or practicing. Indeed, the new global economy is spawning vast arrays of fresh vernaculars, largely determined by efficiency and a breathless reaching for the future.

I have tried to posit some theories on Geotypografika that we may witness the rise of a new global vernacular dominated by "Eastern" forms and projections (as Western forms have dominated the past). Those rapidly emerging markets of consumers could spawn a new sea of visual ephemera and it is interesting I think to see the incredible potential for the "rebirth" of graphic design and typography beyond largely western precepts.

For example, will larger enterprises start marketing to the Indian market with culturally appropriate designs and products, then turn around and sell the leftovers back to the West? The opposite of that is the world we know today. Guess which global markets are beginning to dominate the business and design of the internet, IT, development, and beyond? Look to the sheer projected numbers for the rise of the middle class in those countries (China, India), and your mind can easily start putting things together. A global weight shift of massive proportions.

How long before "they" develop new strategies of success that will have to be followed, in visual or economic forms? I can't wait to start learning from these "new" sources. What a perfect time to embrace the world, brothers and sisters, this is the time for designers and typographers!

So, bring on the world's "amateurs," and may they flourish. Ours is not an elitist tradition! We are servants and authors alike, we care for people and their messages - that is our essential nature. Isn't that what we love about graphic design and type, the limitless potential for "new" forms and expressions?

Isn't that what we learned from... David Carson?

New global forms needed, well intentioned mistakes welcome. Yosh, mina-san, ikimashoka!

Erik Brandt

I agree with Jim's post above. I think we are very forgiving of foolish gaffs, like typos and error-laden emails. The biggest failures may be the hidden ones, the ones born of atrophy. In a goal-oriented culture such as ours, production and output often outweigh genuine creative process. A fear of failure may be based, in part, in a fear of not producing. Especially when a client is involved. We forget how to play. We self-edit, we assume the rules are set, and we focus on the outcome. But when we play, truly play like a kid does, it is the process that becomes the point. Can we allow ourselves to make it up as we go along, see where our imagination takes us, and forget to self-edit so much? That would mean being OK with an outcome that others might dislike.
ELizabeth Evitts Dickinson

thanx man

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