03 Oct To train to fail is the only way.
I’m an avid cooking enthusiast, dedicating considerable time to perusing recipes and watching videos from my favorite chefs to discover novel dishes to create. Just yesterday, my quest led me to explore ways of crafting delectable truffles with pasta. As you might be aware, the summer truffle in Italy lacks flavor. Max Mariola humorously referred to it as a “potato” while offering insights to enhance its taste. This wasn’t unusual, except now my YouTube feed is inundated with design theorists and individuals fashioning homemade pasta. It’s a comforting sense of belonging.
While scrolling through these videos, I chanced upon an emerging trend: individuals documenting recipe failures. Particularly among the younger crowd, they showcase their journey towards mastering their dream recipes (think of fluffy pizzas for example), displaying every attempt. Success and failure intermingle in their narratives. A prime example is Alex, aka French Guy Cooking, who operates from his basement. His unscripted space is a canvas for experimenting with diverse recipes, often inspired by renowned chefs. Alex embodies the spirit of a learner, sharing his growth in each video, such as his quest to perfect a 3 Michelin-star mashed potato.
After numerous trials, he eventually arrives at solutions, even amid moments of contemplating surrender when ideas run dry.
I hold a deep appreciation for this mindset, drawing parallels to the tenacity found in sports. The ethos of trying, training, and persisting until triumph emerges.
Where does this ethos seem absent? The design community.
Now, don’t misconstrue my words as sweeping judgments, but there’s an aura of invincibility surrounding designers that feels somewhat contrived. It’s reminiscent of self-defense, a domain where vigilance reigns, and the design solution solely rests in one’s hands, a world-saving tool. This disposition appears particularly pronounced in the Italian design circuit: “fake it until you make it.” Often, you’re overlooked until reaching a certain stature, and opportunities are scarce. Thus, when a chance surfaces, there’s a tendency to seize it, projecting an air of stardom or mastery, whether earned or not.
But guess what? Failure is the indispensable gateway to success. [applause]
It might sound trite out of context, yet the concept of failure, seen as a milestone on the path to mastery, merits contemplation.
I recall being 15 years old when I embarked on guitar playing. Armed with an inexpensive guitar, I diligently plucked individual notes. It’s a straightforward process: place a finger on a string with your left hand and pluck it with your right to elicit a sound. During early attempts, the string might remain silent. When learning a musical instrument, even a faint sound marks progress, though it’s deemed a failure at playing the guitar. No worries; moments later, you’re back at it, refining until mastery is achieved. This regimen continues daily until you can strum enough chords to reign over campfire sing-alongs.
Design follows a similar pattern. The key distinction lies in the interval between the first and second attempt—far longer than three seconds. To evaluate success or failure and secure results, more time is necessary. Unfortunately, extended timelines hinder immediate gratification. Adding to the complexity, design lacks a standardized yardstick for assessing success.
Consider an Olympic athlete who invests four years to sprint for mere seconds. Progress is quantifiable—measured in seconds. Design, however, defies such a quantification, making it challenging to discern optimal results. The harsh truth is, the market serves as the ultimate tester. Convincing a brand to invest in your design initiates a trial where people’s judgments dictate success or failure.
So what’s failure when it comes to designing things? I think it doesn’t exist in definition.
Failure becomes a catalyst within the design process, even if you nail it on your first attempt. Experimenting with alternative solutions, even when you’re confident in your direction, serves as a litmus test for your choices. The only way to authenticate your design’s efficacy is through testing. Even when shaping an object, you create dozens to decipher what aligns best with your objectives.
If you’re an adept designer reading this, you’re likely nodding in agreement. Your actions reflect this methodology. But why does this commitment often go unnoticed?
The discrepancy arises because those tasked with communicating designers’ work often lack insight into the design process. Picture a communication or marketing representative from a design firm asked to spotlight the culmination of a two-year project—you’ll likely witness a video featuring a designer sketching on random paper, observing an artisan sanding wood, all bathed in gentle backlight accompanied by tranquil free music from Bensound.
This charade ensnares many of us, until we gather enough clout to assert our perspective and control the narrative surrounding our work. Some individuals do exhibit the painstaking effort invested in their creations and earn due recognition. Stefan Diez stands as a prime example—his dedication and decisiveness shine through in his work, unequivocally benefiting each project.
So, what’s the solution?
Surprisingly, nothing revolutionary. Let’s collaboratively champion transparency within the design field to truly convey the arduous process.
Today marks the commemoration of the 39th rejection for a project initiated in 2015. Revisiting it in 2020 to refine, and after crafting 20 prototypes by early 2023, I finally possess something worthy of sharing with potential partners and editors. I’m cognizant that finding a suitable collaborator for this distinctive venture won’t be facile. Yet, akin to matters of the heart, my confidence persists.