What can designers learn from failing? And how can they "fail better"?

10 December 2014

Many a trite fridge magnet, when not busy reminding us how a minute on the lips is a lifetime on the hips, has extolled some wisdom about failure being a good thing, or a reason to try again, or a learning curve or some-such. But that might just be because it’s true. Failure is, indeed, a precursor to learning – something designers are perhaps even more aware of than most. Vince Frost, the former Pentagram designer who founded Frost*Collective, where he holds the post of executive creative director and CEO, is well aware of this, devoting a chapter to failure in the book he launched a few months back, Design Your Life.

The book aims to help people apply the principles of design to everyday life, whether that be in “questioning everything,” “saying ‘yes’ and meaning it,” or “designing by failure.” We wanted to find out more about Vince’s experiences in the fields of failure – and what he’s learnt from not-so-great projects as a designer.

How can designers best learn to fail – and to take something from failure?

I think designers, like most people, naturally fail. We try our hardest to get things right but inevitably we screw up trying to achieve that. I think the best way to do it is to be open to failure. You don’t think of it as failure, but just do as many things as possible. Get it out there, put it down, try lots of ideas and don’t be so critical of each idea. Let them live and breathe and keep trying again and again and again until you find something that feels like it’s the right thing.


Vince Frost: Design Your Life


Vince Frost: Design Your Life

What’s the most common manifestation of failure you see in designers, and how would you advise they remedy it?

I think the thing I’ve seen the most is that people become obsessed with one idea or the first idea and struggle to move on from that. I think that can be quite problematic and it means that they are not open to the idea of those ideas evolving. They become quite protective or obsessive about something, when what they need to do is think about who they are speaking to, the end game. What is success? How do you design an outcome is not just for your portfolio? It’s really about keeping an open mind, being positive and being open to change and other influences.

What’s been the biggest failure or mistake in your career?

I don’t see it as failure personally. I just see it as experiences that maybe haven’t gone as right as I’ve thought they should have done. There have been things that have worked against me that have been quite hard, like the experience I had in Japan with Japanese Vogue. I was there for eight months, relocated at a great cost to myself and my family, only to find out that I was really the wrong guy for the job. Even though I kept persevering and trying to make it work, it hurt so much. It hurt my head, it was the wrong culture, the wrong language, the wrong medium for me to be working in at that time.

What did you learn from it?

I loved the Japanese sense of style, sense of taste, and the respect that they have for life and individuals, like culture and crafts. I learnt respect for people who could do that role. The job of an art director for a fashion publication is a very skilled role and I don’t currently have those skills.

It ended in probably the biggest career disaster I ever had, but I kind of laugh when I talk about it now because I can look back on it thinking that I did it, even though it was very unpleasant, I still learnt a lot from that experience. So in a way anything else that life throws at me I feel like I can tackle that head on.


Vince Frost


Frost* Collective

You discuss that in working with assistants, you had to learn to trust them more in delegating work. How did you do that?

I actually leant how to do that by accident. Until a couple of years ago I was very much still a designer – even though I had a big company and lot of people working here. I was still very hands on with all of the projects and that sometimes took me to the point of serious stretch. I think by default I had to start working with my team by delegating to them and trusting them to work on the solutions. Over time with my pulling out of that situation it helped other people grow and take responsibility.

What design project out in the world (can be branding, architecture, anything!) do you see to be the biggest failure?

There are lots of things out there that you think ‘well that could have been done better,’ but the fact is that it’s very easy to say that when you don’t any insight into the brief. I see the world as a designer and also a member of the general public so sometimes I can naturally see that things could have been better from my perspective to what they were, or there are things that are old that could be refreshed and someone just hasn’t tackled it yet.

The signage right now in Sydney for the trains, ferries, busses etc that has only recently been rolled out is something I personally would have taken quite a different approach on. For some reason in the simplification of that process the symbolism for each mode of transport was assigned a letter corresponding to its name, which is a B, a F and a T. From my perspective and a lot of people living in Sydney it’s not particularly international in its approach, and it’s quite ambiguous what these letters stand for. For non-English speakers it’s quite flawed in that respect; I would have done it very differently. But then again I don’t know what the criteria was and what was involved in that process.

Which brands’ design has been the biggest success?

I guess for me the brands that really stand out, are the ones that have been around for a long time without losing their integrity – great examples are Coca Cola, Apple, Fedex. These brands are all very simple and very clean visually, and also beautifully consistent in their messaging and deliverables. It’s important that brands stay modern and up to date, and continue to evolve, but without throwing away everything they’ve had in the past. Companies like Kodak, Polaroid, Tiffany’s, Nike and a whole bunch of other brands that have managed to stay relevant while times have changed by being focused on their strategy and clear on their values and quality service, they’re just serious brands.


Fedex logo


Sydney train signage


Sydney train signage

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About the Author

Emily Gosling

Emily joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in the summer of 2014 after four years at Design Week. She is particularly interested in graphic design, branding and music. After working It's Nice That as both Online Editor and Deputy Editor, Emily left the company in 2016.

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