Stigmatized Learning — Failing

We need to learn failing is essential to our growth as design students.
Photo taken by Alexandre Godreau

As design students we have all experienced the receiving end of a really shitty evaluation. It’s gut wrenching and ruins the rest of your day—especially your first disaster critique. Especially upon spending countless hours assembling, developing, and producing our projects to our meticulous standards only to receive a sub-par grade, or worse a failing grade.

I’m here to tell you—in my opinion—what you thought of as the void in your pride, is necessary for progression. Most importantly its necessary towards developing a passion for learning. Failing is positive and shouldn’t be projected as humiliating.

It’s nothing ground breaking to realize failing is significant to develop professional skills. However I don’t think it’s stressed enough at early stages in the habitual development of young students (In a North American educational system anyways). I would argue the issue is related with the stigma attached to failing that we are taught early in life.

“Failing should be seen as a step in the iteration process towards a solution”

Why do we seem to learn so late in our lives that failing is really a positive factor in the span of our education? We have always been focused on learning how to perform perfectly—encouraged to idolize peers who seem to never make mistakes—without simultaneously being encouraged to learn the value of making those mistakes in the creative process. So let’s look at the pro’s of becoming comfortable with failing.


Learn from mistakes

It’s rare that someone will improve significantly in a short period of time without failing at some point in their career or academic life. To thoroughly learn from your mistakes you need to make mistakes. It leaves a lasting impression when you completely fail the correct solution. This helps you remember the error when proceeding to learn the successful solution.

Become comfortable with risk taking

Building up a confidence to learn from your mistakes can also give you confidence to take risks in your creative process—and life in general. Risk taking is an essential factor of creative exploration, a task in which you can’t be afraid of failure. Learning to be comfortable with potential failure can help you feel confident about directing a project in an experimental direction. Which when placed in the iterative process of product design for example, can lead to innovation. Let’s look at the RAT (Riskiest Assumption Test)—a model used to help define a MVP(Minimal Viable Product)—to see how risk taking is a great asset to have.

Riskiest Assumption Test Model

The purpose of a RAT is to discover rapidly which features of your design work and which features do not—in a high risk environment. Meaning instead of spending months or years putting together a MVP based on biased theoretical scenarios, you quickly get real feedback from users to build an informed MVP for launch. Rapid fire iteration that can only occur with confident risk taking and experimentation in your design process.

“Risk taking is more comfortable when failure isn’t stigmatized”

So become comfortable with the potential failure of experimental risk taking, it’s super beneficial. It also helps keep an open mind.

Incentive to learn comes from progression

In the industry of interactive design there is a constant flow of trends, tools, terms, techniques, and a whole lot of shit to keep in tune with. This of course requires a flexible mind that enjoys learning. You’d probably drive yourself crazy without one.

To have motivation—for anything really—you need incentive. In our case with learning, progression is a great incentive to keep going and to enjoy the continued process. As I mentioned earlier, learning from your mistakes is an effective way to experience error and correct it. Repetition of that process over time will give way to progression in whatever it is exactly that you’re learning. In retrospect, visualizing where you started can help you contextualize your progression you’ve made. That visualization of your progression can become your eternal motivation to keep learning. But how can this cycle occur when we stigmatize failing; scoff at making mistakes?

Humiliation through failure can be detrimental towards your ability to enjoy learning later on in your academic life or career. Failure shouldn’t be humiliating, it should be informative.


Suggestions for the system

How do we proceed? I’ve briefly outlined my concern with the negative way in which we deal with failure and the benefits that come from treating failure as informative information. How would we go about moving towards a educational model that supports informative failing? I’m unable to dig really deep into this question because currently I am only a university student myself, I have no experience as a professor, administrative assistant, or one who manages the creation of curriculums. So I will merely suggest—through a students perspective—what I think could be changed in our current system.

The grading system holds—whether intentional or not—an intellectual social prestige within its ranks. When receiving a D- to A+ you understand where you stand on the spectrum of intelligence among peers; the stigma stuck to failure at work. For example the design program I am currently enrolled in holds a prestigious typography workshop and the attendees all chosen based on grade averages. With this said, not all the attendees are superior in typography skills or even experimental, but are invited regardless. One example of many that perpetuates young design students to play it safe. Even though grades in a design curriculum are widely known as subjective. What I’m getting at is that the pressure to constantly receive high averages deters us as students to take risks. The ability to see failure as a step towards mastery is rejected.

Of course there are some professors that are exceptions and I have had the pleasure of learning from them—it’s the reason I’m inspired to write this article. But why do they have to be rare. Why does that mindset in our supposed mentors have to be a unicorn in design education?

My suggestion for design education is to alter the projected perspective and social qualities of what it means to fail. Failing shouldn’t be a social concept viewed as entirely wrong. The learning benefits / advantages of experiencing failure are natural and should be expressed in design education. Even in earlier educational systems such as middle school.

So remember these concepts and don’t be discouraged to be experimental.

  1. Learn from mistakes.
  2. Become comfortable with risk taking.
  3. Incentive to learn comes from progression.

Note :

This is my first attempt at penetrating the design blog world, I hope you enjoyed and walked away with a new perspective on failing. Maybe this was an effective article and maybe I failed. I’d love to hear your opinions!

— Either way I’ll learn from my mistakes and progress. Thank you 🤘