Failure Detection: How to do it, and why is it important in creative practice?

23 March 2021

Creative practice is often referred to as the process of producing art or design-related work, rather than the systematic inquiry to knowledge acquisition. The latter would be known as research. A creative practitioner is characterised to have creative-thinking skills, which requires them to innovate and solve problems as the outcome is often situated within social or cultural context.  It is important to note that failure occurs throughout the process of designing. It could be a failure to understand the problem, failure to make a right creative decision, or something more problematic like failure to address the issue the project was expected to solve. It is crucial to eliminate failure during the early stages of design, as the repercussions will grow increasingly dire. It will also be harder to retract your decisions or actions in the later stages of the process, due to the fact that the output would have been situated in context by then. As the saying goes, it’s better to nip it in the bud as big failures are often preceded by smaller failures!

Often in result-driven environments like schools or corporate workplace, failure has no place because it negatively impacts results. Therefore, it is counterproductive and avoided for most parts. What many people do not realise however, is that failure is an integral part of creative practice. The open-ended nature of design means that there is no derivative of an answer, but instead, it is often deciding on the most suitable response. In that, it encompasses active exploration and deliberation of options. How failure functions in this case, is that it acts as a signifier for possibilities for improvement. It is generative, rather than unproductive.  However, the challenge is that in order to even begin the iterative process of improvement, we first need to detect the failure. That itself requires much effort, because unlike engineering processes where failure analysis frameworks are often straight-forward, creative processes are far more complex and differ between individuals. According to Mark Cannon and Amy Edmondson, failure detection is tricky because it can simply go unnoticed, it could be noticed but ignored, or it could be hiding its existence.

Some common factors which prevent detection could be due to technical, social and resource barriers. Technical barriers are those which involve poor understanding of processes or methods, such an overly-complicated process or the design of a process. Social barriers are closely related to the human ego and esteem. It includes fear of what others might think, and might motivate one to disassociate, distort or deny failure. Finally, we have resource barriers which reminds us that failure can be a financial, social and cultural privilege. While one may have the opportunity to fail, it does not equate to them having the money or contextual resource to learn from it.

In order to effectively detect failure, we need to establish the outcome, analyse the factors which lead to the failure, formulate a hypothesis, and finally act on the failure based on the working hypothesis. The process is non-linear, and may require a few tries and tests. As mentioned earlier, the key to look at it is that you are discovering options to settle for the most desirable one.

Cannon, Mark D., and Amy C. Edmondson. “Failing to learn and learning to fail (intelligently): How great organizations put failure to work to innovate and improve.” Long range planning38.3 (2005): 299-319.
Creely, Edwin, Michael Henderson, and Danah Henriksen. “Failing to succeed: The value of failure in creativity.” Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE), 2019.
Edmondson, C. Amy. “Strategies for Learning from Failure,” Harvard Business Review, Apr. 2011, /hbr.org/2011/04/strategies-for-learning-from-failure.
Sharp, John, and Colleen Macklin. Iterate: Ten Lessons in Design and Failure. MIT Press, 2019.
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