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Failure Is Defined By


Failure is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a lack of success, but that is not true for the design process and many other creative processes. When designing, there are many avenues of thinking that have to be taken in order to fully create a good design. In order to be able to take each of these avenues and continue on with the process, one has to be comfortable with the idea of failure and use it as a guide to know when to loop back in the process, and not as a stopping point in the create process. Failure plays a crucial role in the design process, specifically during the ideation and prototyping stage, the user testing stage, and the production and release to market stage. Failure does not hinder the thinking process of a designer when generating ideas, rather it helps them clearly define the path in which they will find the best solution.

Ideation and Prototyping:

When a designer is in the ideation and prototyping stage they are constantly brainstorming. This type of thinking is very much non-linear as they will explore many different ideas that may not be all connected but would link back to the design brief. Failure has a role in both linear and non-linear thinking, but good design will inevitably come from non-linear thinking. Once a designer is in stage of ideation and prototyping they will have failed attempts at the design solution which will only further there understanding what the final design solution will be

Linear thinking

Looking at how people learn through the design is a challenge because it differs to a typical problem-solving process. In a typical problem-solving process, a user is given a problem and they want to understand a set of information in order to solve said problem. Whether this information is maths, chemistry, project management, or plumbing. In each of these disciplines, at their basic forms, if one can understand the set of rules in which the problem can be solved, then the user would be able to solve any problem that pertains to those set of rules. For example, if one has the understanding of addition, and can understand why 2+2=4, then they are able to take that understanding and complete any addition problem using that understanding. That is linear problem solving at its core. As said by Sawyer, it is key in linear thinking to have productive failures in your learning. These failures will create a space in which you can be taught and have a deeper understanding of the concepts. So, if you give a problem to someone without the understanding to solve it, they might try to solve it using their understanding of the concepts they already know. When they eventually fail because they do not have the proper understanding to solve said problem, they will reach an impasse. At this point the correct concepts can be taught and they will be able to find the solution. This specific moment in linear thinking allows the student or user to fail, and from that failure they are able to have an understanding of an unfamiliar concept. When looking at the design process, none of the process is truly linear, especially not the ideation or prototyping stages.

Non-linear thinking

Ideation and prototyping consist of many small creative thoughts either when a designer is sketching, modeling, or just brainstorming. People may think that this process is linear because as a designer you would get a design brief from your client and then you design exactly what the client might have been imagining in their head, but that rarely ever happens. When the designer receives the brief, they will challenge everything on that brief as to why it is there and how important it is to the client. This will create a list of requirements that will drive the project and will keep the designer consistent with what the client wants. Now that it is clear what the client wants the designer will begin to brainstorm, sketch, and model. Each of these activities creates a space for small creative thoughts to occur as to how the problem can be solved as there is usually more than one way to do it. Since there is more than one way to do it, the thinking during these activities will not be linear and will therefore have the designer fail at multiple stages in all of the activities on the path to the creation of concepts.

Learning from failed attempts

At these beginning stages of the design process it is important to fail so that you can ask why it failed. If a designer doesn’t ask why this particular model or idea doesn’t work, then they are not learning from this failed attempt at a solution. The process that should be taken during these early stages can be thought of as a loop. It can start out as an idea generated by the designer. That idea can be sketched out or modeled so that the designer can better understand its strengths and weaknesses. Once at this stage, the idea can be analyzed as to why it would or wouldn’t work with the design brief. If it does work, then you’re on to prototyping your idea and showing it to your client. If it doesn’t, which many of the preliminary designs might not. The designer can take the reasoning as to why it didn’t work and learn from it, so they won’t have similar issues in future iterations. At this point the designer is looping back in the process to idea generation. This continuous loop provides a good space for designers to quickly ideate and analyze those ideations to decide if they have merit and then learn from the each of the failed ideations. Just because one of the ideations did not fully meet the reequipments of the design brief they may still have useful ideas. Those ideas can be synthesized into new ideations. This is the basis of learning through failed attempts in the early stages of the design process.

User testing

Getting user feedback on your product is the most effective way on learning how well your product serves its purpose. As a singular designers’ view can be bias when looking at their solution to a problem because they have only followed their own thinking from the beginning, especially if the designer is working alone on a project. The designer could also think that part of the usage of the product is intuitive, but this could be because they are the ones that designed. Since they already know the entire usage cycle of the product of service, they know the steps to take to run through a cycle flawlessly. This may not be the case for a first-time user because one; they are not fully familiar with the design itself, two; they haven’t seen the process in which the solution was developed. It’s important to get this feedback early on in your prototyping stages so that you can see where your failures are, and you have the ability to redesign before the product of service goes to market.

Outside Perspective

Designers can often fall into a bubble of their own work, so they are only surrounded by their own successes and failures in the process. Getting an outside perspective on their deigns is helpful to confirm that the logic behind the design is not flawed. A first step is to get another designer to look over the work, as they will have a similar ability to understand the design process itself. This first outside set of eyes should be involved in most of the process to re-affirm the decisions made by the designer when there are assumptions about the consumer involved. Once there is a something for a person to interact with, that’s when user testing should begin. The users should be from the market that you are targeting, as there is no point testing a product or service on children that is being designed and made for adults. That being said, within the market you are targeting there inevitably will be a range of people, whether that’s based on age, sex, profession, or education. These all may affect their interaction with the product and will cause them to have a specific opinion on your design of a product or service. When talking to users who test the product or service, they should be asked set of questions that are directed on specific parts of the design so that failures can be specifically addressed by the users. As with all perspectives as that are received by the designer, they should be considered, but not always followed. They have to be prioritized and they should only change the design if those changes align with the central ideas that are driving the project.

Challenging the Design

Users who are seeing a product or service for the first time are going to question everything about it. From how it is used, to why is coloured in such a way. These questions are vital to the designer because they will point out the failures and successes of the design. These questions would perhaps challenge the designer to think about why a certain part of the design was designed that way. This would force the designer to have justifications for the design. These justifications often come from either the designer adhering to a design brief laid out by the client or research that has been done on the mark they are targeting with the design solution.

Production and Release to Market

When examining the role of failure in the design process, one should look at examples of successful products that did not start out as successful as they are now. There are so many examples of this, but a few are products such as WD-40, Bubble wrap, and Dyson vacuums. Each of these products are the result of multiple failed attempts to achieve a goal, some didn’t even achieve the set-out goal but are used in a completely different purpose. WD-40 gets its name from the fact that it was the 40th attempt at making a solvent for degreasing and rust protection (forbes). Bubble wrap was the result of two engineers trying to create a textured wallpaper that would be new and trendy. After the product failure miserably in the housing market they were able to repurpose it for packaging and it was then used by IBM to package their computers. Only then did Bubble wrap become a successful product after it had failed. A famous failure among designers is the story of James Dyson and his 5,127 prototypes that failed. This is a very good example of the perseverance through failure and also the reward of failure. After all of those failed prototypes, he created one of the most successful vacuum companies in the world.


The manufacturing process can be quite a cumbersome process. There is a lot of testing of molds and materials involved in this process. Decisions have to be made by the designer either for or in unison with the client. For example, the client may have wanted a certain type of plastic used for the housing of aa electronic part, but the designer knows that’s not a sturdy enough plastic and would only be used to cut costs. So, the client will push for the manufacturer to use said plastic but when the first prototypes come back from the manufacturer, they have dimples and deformities over the wider surfaces. For the designer, it is better to be able to prove these failures earlier on to the client as it will save them money. These failures, however costly, will save money over the long run as they won’t use a weak plastic for the real production run. Another common area of failure between designers and the production industry is communication. The breakdown of communication could be through language or due to the fact that the designer can’t always be in person to explain the thought process of their design solution and how they thought it should be manufactured. These explanations are often written in emails and on longer technical documents. Not to say that all the onus of failure during this stage is on the designer but also on the manufacturer. The production manager could easily have misread a part of the technical document which was key to the style in which the product will be formed. In any case of failure, there is still an opportunity for both the designer and the manufacturer to learn from these mistakes.

Targeted Market

Researching through user testing and developing a design solution for a problem is all well and good, however, whether the market accepts the design solution is a completely different. Once the design solution is finished and it has gone through test manufacturing, production is running, a marketing campaign has been devised, and the client has given the final approval, the product is released into the public. The time between the release and any sort of analytical results can be drawn is metaphorically very long for the designer because they want to know if their design solution is accepted by the people is was designed for. There are many examples of failed products, already spoken about was the Bubble wrap wallpaper example. This failure was disastrous at first but, the potential of the product was realized by the designers. Lots of products are used not as intended by consumers, the designers of Bubble wrap foresaw a different use and were able to re-identify their invention towards a different problem, packaging. This re-identification is a very good example of how failure forced them into thinking non-linearly about how it could be used and what problems it could address. As stated, failure forces designers not to stop but to loop back in the design process and continue to think down a different avenue. Without failure the designers would have never of thought of re-purposing their design solution against a much larger problem, the transportation of innovative technology.

Surpassed by Innovation

Technology is constantly changing and is driving product and service innovation in all industries. With so many new products and services being produced, lots are being replaced. This is not to say that these older products have failed as products, but they have become obsolete with their performance or aesthetics. This accelerating rate of change in the development of technology has been observed and is called the Kurzweil Law. For example, looking at the smartphone industry, new phones are released every six to twelve months because there is always new technology being developed. With each new iteration of smartphone there is new technology that arrives with it. Older technology doesn’t fail to perform but it fails to keep up with the increasingly large data that is being produced by society. This means they will eventually fail because of not being able to handle this data. When it comes to the design process, the eventual failure of the technology to outperform competition leads the designer to once again loop back in the design process to the first stage of ideation and prototyping for the next evolution in the design solution to that problem. Being surpassed by innovative technologies is not a bad thing to happen, it means that perhaps there are new problems in society that will arise with the new technology. This means there needs to be a new design solution to fulfill that problems needs.


Understanding the crucial role of failure in the design process is important as a designer and as someone who critically thinks about design itself. Failure is not a lack of success in this particular process, rather a guide for the designer to know when to stop and analyze why the design solution did not work and take those reasons to help them in their future iterations of design. From failed first attempts at the design process, to having to the designed challenged and questioned by outside eyes, to the market not receiving the product well. These are all a chance for the designer to loop back in the process to either the step before, or right back to the ideation stage and analyze why the product or service failed in the way that it did.

Freelance Writer

I’m a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Boston University. My work has been featured in publications like the L.A. Times, U.S. News and World Report, Farther Finance, Teen Vogue, Grammarly, The Startup, Mashable, Insider, Forbes, Writer (formerly Qordoba), MarketWatch, CNBC, and USA Today, among others.