A Conversation on Failure in Design

Monday, June 21, 2010 12:01

Marcia Caines & Ashwin Rajan

artwork Mario Suarez

“Eighty percent of the environmental impact of the products, services, and infrastructures around us is determined at the design stage. Design decisions shape the processes behind the products we use, the materials and energy required to make them, the ways we operate them on a daily basis, and what happens to them when we no longer need them. We may not have meant to do so, and we may regret the way things have turned out, but we designed our way into the situations that face us today.” John Thackara – In the Bubble.

AR: A comment before you fire away. I dig John Thackara, but I see what he’s addressing here very differently. The situation on the ground being what it is: financial, market, and political decisions drive our collective use of processes and products, and their use and disposal. Products and services come to market, are adopted, used and tossed away in waves of spontaneous consumer indulgence pursued by an orchestrated effort to sustain market share. It’s not as elegant and thought out as Thackara describes, because to ‘design’ anything would be to think it through to its logical extremes. In fact, what Thackara supposes here is exactly what is not happening in my view: practices that offer ways to design for systemic consequences are not very influential in our global society at all. And the position that designers and design thinkers are seeking today is one that situates them much more centrally in processes that have ignored design for way too long, at everyone’s peril.

artwork Mario Suarez

MC: In our previous discussion we talked about the potential of systemic design to tackle complex global problems through design thinking. You recently highlighted the need for more contextualisation in the design profession, so what I would like to talk about today is failure, which per se is a way of ‘revealing context’¹. Do you agree?

AR: A single instance of failure can be a downer, but repeatedly failing at something has a lot of instructive value. As a result, I see failure as a very handy framing device. Yes, failure can reveal context in that an iterative, refine-by-failing, process can be used to frame the basic contours of fuzzy problems quite well. And that’s where we need to accelerate the adoption of the design approach: where it is unclear how to define or frame a problem that has several dimensions demanding potentially opposing priorities.

MC: Can you give me an everyday example of that?

AR: Let’s see. I am currently working on this project, for example, that uses a lot of paper prototypes and print material. We discard most of the stuff as we go along. Looking at all the apparently unusable left over paper lying around one evening, I remember asking myself – “Why isn’t the (mis)use of paper recognized as a serious problem in organizations, even those that consider themselves committed social players?” Well, that’s because paper use is a potential problem when seen through the ‘project budget’ frame, rather than the ‘environmental impact’ frame. Are we using more paper than we have allocated budget for? If not, it’s fine. This view does not involve considerations such as the total carbon footprint of a project, which, in a better designed system, should ultimately figure in the profitability of a project. And so, I think the criteria for failure can be leveraged a lot more intelligently in our world. In actual fact, it is the high tolerance to failure in society that presents interesting opportunities for designers.

artwork Mario Suarez

MC: Can you elaborate on such opportunities?

AR: Well, if you think about it, the general failure threshold in 21st century society is remarkably low in certain areas, and intriguingly high in others. For example, the failure threshold for marriage is very low in many advanced countries. In Finland, for instance, one marriage in two ends in a divorce. On the other hand, our tolerance for unhealthy – ‘failed’- junk food is very high. Why is this? An easy answer is that we overestimate the importance of immediate, short-term gratification, and underestimate its long-term effects. But I think there is more going on here. Culture is another important, subtler, factor. Nevertheless, the point is that the failure threshold of a consumer market can strongly influence the products and services that it consumes. Bad, cheap office chairs may not have many takers in Europe, but they sell by the thousands in large BPO organizations in India where the failure threshold for a chair is very high.

artwork Mario Suarez

MC: You suggest that tolerance to failure presents interesting opportunities for designers, but in market-driven businesses and corporate environments where achieving goals is imperative for return on investment – where, in other words, success is only the result of relevance – how can failure truly be leveraged?

AR: Too little of this valuable activity – recognizing, documenting and learning from failure – happens within a market-share driven mindset. Besides the usual commercial indicators of success, there are usually a handful of design benchmarks (based on what leaders or competitors are doing) that provide a threshold for success. It is naturally assumed that anything that falls below this success threshold is a failure, and the sooner such failed attempts are forgotten the better.

This is obviously a reactive way of doing things. Like I said earlier, a product is a failure or a success depending on how you frame it. I find that shifting perspective to understand a design or a concept or a product can yield valuable insights, which can be harvested and reinvested in other ways, even if those ideas themselves do not offer a direct potential for monetization.

artwork Mario Suarez

MC: In traditional object design the success, or failure, of a consumer product is largely determined by its reception in the public realm. In this context design failures serve as important
indicators for designers and companies in competitive marketplaces, but how is failure measured in the broader, more visionary fields of design that produce intangible goods?

AR:Industrial design has had to remain concerned with failure because safety and performance are critical to tangible products. The only physical products that have endured despite being of below average performance are those that have attained iconic status, in the sense of being works of art.

When it comes to intangible products or information appliances, there are not many ways to measure failure, other than the obvious commercial performance factor. This is a new scenario for product designers. For example, tangible user interfaces in devices like the iPad have recently come under a lot of criticism for offering too much opportunity for design that fails miserably at meeting basic human-computer interaction hygiene.

I can think of three main ways in which the success or failure of intangible products and services are currently measured – in terms of tasks, goals, and experiences. All of these are subjective metrics, and the profession has yet to figure out how to determine consistent standards when it comes to establishing generic failure thresholds. It’s a brave new world.

artwork Mario Suarez

MC: “Fuel-guzzling cars, illegible instruction books, malfunctioning mobile phones and landfills filled with crap”² are examples of design failures (or necessary by-products of innovation) we are all familiar with, but if failure is unavoidable, and constructive to the creative process, then we need to be rid of the stigma attached to it – do you agree?

AR: Failure as being constructive and instructive to the design process is not about ending up with crappy artifacts or toxic waste, it’s about failing early in small, incremental steps to avoid ending up with ultimately unsustainable products or practices in the long-term. I hope that’s simple enough.

MC: Has the growth of bottom-up and grassroots practices marked new horizons for ‘trial and error’ in the design discipline?

AR: Bottom-up and grassroots practices provide some of the best examples of ‘design by trial and error’. Examples abound, from community development through micro-lending, to community mobilization through micro-blogging. What’s great about grassroots innovations is that they start small. They are usually solid in their fundamental architecture. They are modular. They are scalable. And they usually work pretty well in a cultural context far removed from their own, because they meet some fundamental human need in the first place. Yes, this is a very exciting domain at the moment.
artwork Mario Suarez

MC: In your opinion does the training of designers reflect the changing and increasingly complex environment in which products are designed and used?

AR: Oh, certainly. Like I mentioned in our earlier talk, design is increasingly seen as the glue that can provide collaboration and a multi-disciplinary perspective. And this is the best approach we have come up with so far when it comes to addressing complex problems. Design schools globally have begun to realize this and are integrating more of this thinking into their curricula.

¹ Peter Hall ‘The Uses of Failure’ Crossing the Line: The 2010 D-Crit Conference vimeo.com/11475690

²Alice Rawsthorn ‘Designing For Good’ Seminar, Copenhagen August 28 2009

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “A Conversation on Failure in Design”

  1. Marcia Caines says:

    June 21st, 2010 at %I:%M %p

    New Blog Post: A Conversation on Failure in Design http://tiny.cc/bwb1g

  2. Marcia Caines says:

    June 21st, 2010 at %I:%M %p

    New Blog Post: A Conversation on Failure in Design http://tiny.cc/bwb1g

Leave a Reply