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Teach Design: The Importance of Failure

Ongoing investigations into a project that brings design to a local high school in Austin. design mind on GOOD is a series exploring the power of...

Ongoing investigations into a project that brings design to a local high school in Austin.


design mind on GOOD is a series exploring the power of design by the editors of design mind magazine.



I won’t pretend to know a lot about Samuel Beckett or his writing, but the notion of "failing better" resonates very strongly with me. Design is all about failure. It's about taking an initial swag at something and seeing how it works. Does your design solve the problem? Does it create a delightful, intuitive experience? Not quite? Well, then tweak it. Rev it. Iterate it. The more you experiment, the more you iterate, the better.

Why is that? Well, when doing design work, you're drawing up plans. But plans are just that—mental thoughts that you project on a subject matter. In the words of the architect Louis Kahn, you're trying to create "meaningful order." Order is pretty easy: Just pick and organizing principle or a pattern and you've got order. But meaningful? That's the tricky part. What is meaningful? To whom is it meaningful? Is it universally meaningful or is it just meaningful to a particular audience?

Creating meaning is the hardest part of design; you're not going to get it right the first time. But you can iterate it. Not just once, but many times. And the sooner you're doing iterations in the actual materials of the finished product, the better the design will be. Because you can't perfectly premeditate meaningful experiences. You have to experiment and see what happens.

Our joint design project with McCallum High School is no exception. We've been working with 12 students to develop a concept called "Bubbles" which consists of a set of interactive outdoor seating arrangements. We decided to incorporate sonar proximity sensors to create playful behavior with lights when people approach and move away from the bubbles. Our first thought was to make the lights get brighter as people approach, and dimmer as they move away, and we thought it would be a good idea to properly diffuse the LED lights so that there were no bright spots—just one smooth, seamless gradient of color growing brighter and dimmer.

So, one of our brilliant technologists from frog hooked up the sonar sensor, a Phidgets board (an open hardware platform), and the LEDs and then wrote an Adobe AIR app that took in the proximity readings and controlled the LEDs accordingly. And then something unpredictable happened. But that seamless gradient of color? Not so much. Instead, the lights seemed to be going off almost randomly. They did follow some sort of pattern (as you got closer, more of them turned on) and you could definitely see the "spots" where the LEDs were, so we covered the LEDs with crumpled paper. The result looked like a lightning storm! It was so cool!

So was that failure? It was definitely a small failure in the sense that result was not what we had designed on paper. But somehow, the "failed" behavior was meaningful. It mapped to our collective memories of lightning storms and it resonated with us.

That experience reminded us that we shouldn't spend too much time premeditating designs. Instead, we should experiment, play, get our hands on real materials and see what they tell us. What do concrete, wood, and LEDs have to say? What do they, as materials and agents, lend themselves to? Maybe they'll tell us something we didn't expect.

So, we're actually going to start failing more often now. We're going to divide up into two teams and experiment with our materials. Each team will have different ideas. And each team will probably experience lots of little failures; but that's how we'll learn. And that's how we'll create a more meaningful design.

Teach design by experimentation. Don't be afraid of failure.

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