Art and design schools everywhere preach the importance of failure. Tutors encourage students to let go of any preconceptions of what their work should be and, instead, try everything under the sun, using their mistakes as a means to learn. James Dyson famously made his way through over 5,000 prototypes before discovering the solution for the modern-day hoover, for example. Creativity and the generation of new ideas seem to go hand-in-hand with making mistakes, with the best ideas the result of learning from one.
The problem is, however, when it happens, it doesn’t feel great. It can feel isolating and discouraging and no matter how much people tell you to keep trying, it can be incredibly discouraging. To offer some comfort and prove that failure really does happen to the best of us, It’s Nice That spoke to ten creatives about a time they messed up and what they learnt from it.
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Graphic designer, Jimmy Turrell
Jimmy Turrell: I actually did a whole album campaign for the band The Prodigy which then got killed right at the final hurdle.
It was mostly my fault, to be honest. I’d only just arrived in London and I was just a bit young and naive when I first got this giant commission. It was basically my first big job and I ended up presenting way too many options – while also failing to self-edit or curate my sketches – which I think ended up confusing everybody.
The whole drawn-out process (around a year and a half of my life) actually made me want to quit design altogether and do something else entirely. Instead, I dusted myself off and went back and did a masters at Central Saint Martins. Creatively I’d got stuck in a real rut and I just wanted to learn new techniques and experiment with different ways of thinking. It also prompted me to get a really good agent – (Heart Agency, who still represent me today, both in London and New York City) and this allowed me to really concentrate on the creative side of my practice.
So, all in all, it was a real blessing in disguise.
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Writer and podcaster, Liv Siddall
Liv Siddall: I feel like I have put my foot in it professionally in some way at least once per day for the last decade. At Rough Trade when I was making their monthly music magazine I once printed the wrong band name across an entire double page spread, and the only reason I even noticed I had done it was because people started tweeting at the company about it. Jeez, that was a bad day. Also, when I first started working there people were always referring to bands or artists as being “Secretly Canadian” and I was like, “Why is everyone pretending not to be Canadian?” And I only realised much, much later that Secretly Canadian was actually the name of a label.
In terms of more abstract mistakes, I think my biggest mistake every day is thinking that I’m an idiot or not good enough for my job. Sort of like an intense version of imposter syndrome. I think I’ll look back on my career and think hey, I was actually doing pretty well, I wish I had believed in myself more and given myself a break! I need to concentrate on how great I am at loads of stuff, rather than dwelling on how bad I am at other stuff.
Creative director at ManvsMachine, Adam Rowe
Adam Rowe: The biggest mistake of my career came in 2014 at OFFF festival in Barcelona.
We were the headline act on the main stage, and somehow our ECD, Mike Alderson managed to con us into putting on gold lycra suits and performing an interpretive dance to a few 1000 people.
The real mistake though was necking a bottle of rum beforehand due to nerves and then putting up the near pitch black hood for the first time, as we walked on stage. The combination of rum, darkness and dance moves saw me fall from the stage, bringing down one of my colleagues and half of the stage with us.
All in all, I learnt a few things from this experience. Trust your gut and don’t be tricked into doing things you don’t want to do. Don’t wear lycra. And don’t drink and dance in front of your peers.
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Set designers, Isabel and Helen
Isabel and Helen: We were commissioned to create an outdoor installation for a members-only rooftop terrace in Shoreditch one summer. We decided to create the whole thing out of hundreds of silver balloons.
It looked brilliant until half an hour before the event opened a strong wind blew the whole lot away!
We definitely learnt our lesson… to never underestimate the weather.
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Illustrator and artist, Jordy van den Nieuwendijk
Jordy van den Nieuwendijk: My goodness, thinking back to the time I studied graphic design at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague gives me the heebie-jeebies.
Looking back now I guess it wasn’t just me studying there but more a mix of personalities. Among others, I was mostly a confident illustrator that knew how to hold a pencil. A curious student, yet only eager to learn about a few things that interested me. A nerdy coder that decided to make a website for every project (I probably made a website of the nude model during life drawing). A hopeless Lothario constantly in love with pretty much everyone at art school. A humdrum typographer that always used a stretched version of Helvetica. A terrible planner that was always late for class and missed pretty much every deadline. A night-owl working nights before presentations. A defensive one trick pony. A Jack of all trades.
I guess you can say a big part of this was because I was an illustrator pretending to be a graphic designer, constantly feeling I was a fraud. For four years now I am ironically, yet proudly teaching the drawing class of the first year BA graphic design students at the Royal Academy where I studied. I can’t help but wonder about the “could-haves, would-haves should-haves”.
I wish I invested more time in critically reflecting on my own work. (Take distance. Analyse. Adjust.) I wish I entered the library at least once during my studies. I wish I got the most out of the workshops (wood, steel, screenprint, photography, etching). I wish I wasn’t so hard on myself after failing. I wish I trusted myself more in the ability to create. I wish I more often took critique as helpful advice. I wish I understood more accurately what I was doing and why. I guess, in the end – although some people say failure is the best way to learn – I wish I actually studied…
Photographer, Elena Heatherwick
Elena Heatherwick: A now amusing, but at the time heartbreaking/mortifying story, of the first time I did a shoot using a medium format camera.
My son was 18 months old, I was in the depth of breastfeeding/no sleep and desperate to start working as a portrait photographer. Small issue was that I didn’t have a portfolio (or a proper camera). One day I walked past Michael Palin outside his house. It took me a few weeks to pluck up the courage but I went back and knocked on his door and asked if I could do a portrait of him and told him that I would make him a cake in return. Quite unbelievably, he said yes. He is such a dude. I disagree with whoever said don’t meet your idols!
The day before the shoot I borrowed a friend’s Mamiya RZ. I was clueless as to how to use the camera but stupidly confident that this was the way I wanted to work. No light meter but again, stupidly confident I knew how to read light. I shot two rolls of film.
When I got them developed the negatives were all completely underexposed, save for two massively unusable grainy images. But – the cake I gave him came out pretty good (pear and banana) and since then over the years he’s kindly given me advice over email at various points in my career. Most recently introducing me to the work of a wonderful charity called Farm Africa who I very much hope to collaborate with soon. So I guess it’s a story about how, if you want to pursue portraiture, it’s important to be confident and open and to speak to strangers (and learn to bake?) but on the technical front it’s probably best to do your homework first and come prepared rather than wing it!
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Creative partner at KesselsKramer, Dave Bell
Dave Bell: It’s hard to single out one supreme fuck-up when the road is scattered with much fuckuppery. But the one that stuck with me most is more a slice of stupidity than a massive mistake. I attended the School of Communication Arts, which was headed up by John Gillard, who has since passed away, sadly. Every student was assigned an external mentor from the industry and John gave me Steve Henry. Steve was one of the H’s in HHCL, the infamous agency that made socially aware, very funny, very uncommercial work. The work managed to somehow be both completely left-field and totally spot on. Everyone wanted to work there.
He was a smart guy and I was a nervous student. So instead of seeing him again and again and sharpening the shit out of my work, I visited him once, mumbled my way through the meeting, quietly soaked up his gentle criticism and never went back to see him again. My advice: If you get a chance to meet with someone whose work you respect, see them as often as possible. Also, while I’m here: change your work often. No portfolio should stay in one place. It should live, evolve and shift shape. Go see the agencies that are too big, or feel too wrong, because sometimes seeing the places you hate energises you to fight harder for the places you love. Show the stuff you do on the side – to the right people, it’s far more important than the “work-work”. Mess up and mess about as often as you can, because now’s the time to do it. And don’t work for people who don’t allow that. Avoid the arrogant, meet the humble, and stay in touch as much as you can without becoming a stalker. If you are still floundering after six months without a whiff of a job, start your own shoe company. Everyone needs shoes.
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Photographer, Charlie Engman
Charlie Engman: As far as mistakes go, they happen all the time and are part of the process of creating, growing, and sustaining anything.
When I think back on notable mistakes I’ve made, the majority are moments of taking situations or people for granted, oftentimes unconsciously. Sometimes the mistake was missing an opportunity because I had an ill-considered judgment about it, and sometimes it was engaging an opportunity when I really needed to tend to my personal life. Everyone you work with, as well as the people who enrich and encourage your creativity on a personal level, are part of your process and your success. Value and respect the energy they bring to you, and don’t make unfounded or unreasonable assumptions about them or their abilities. It can be healthy and important to critique and even to be self-interested at times, but empathy is essential.
Big picture: if you’re honest yet empathetic with both yourself and others, most mistakes will be incidental at worst.
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Co-founder and creative director of Hato, Ken Kirton
Ken Kirton: Something I’ve only come to realise recently is the importance of forging your own identity within your field of practice. As Hato we have always applied the values of craft, community and play at the forefront of our design, process and manner.
With time we came to realise that when working with clients that share these values, it meant for a stronger client-designer relationship. So for me, the most important thing is to stay true to your values, don’t worry about what other designers and studios are doing. You may not win every project, but some projects just aren’t meant to be.
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Graphic designer, Janet Hansen
This isn’t a clear moment where I feel I made my biggest mistake, but rather a consistent failure, over time, to realise a couple things I was doing wrong. These things in combination created a struggle for me that I thought would never end. My self-confidence in my ability to design was nonexistent. This crippled me, and I found myself in a sort of panic, just trying to emulate what others considered to be “acceptable”. It was pretty miserable. I didn’t like my work and my inability to voice my real opinions left me feeling extremely frustrated. Eventually, I learned to get over it, to believe in myself, and to take risks and only present things that I am proud of – it was worth it.
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About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.