Art of Failure

Our greatest work is trapped inside of failures. Free it.

Luke Askew
May 21, 2014 · 4 min read

In their book “Art and Fear”, David Bayles and Ted Orland tell the following story:

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

A pile of of dead clay.

I love that last line because its the perfect way to describe a lot of projects I’ve worked on.

Sometimes it feels like the more brainstorming or whiteboarding or strategizing our teams does, the more we’re held back. These things seem to get in the way of success.

What web artists are learning now is what great artists have known for a while: failure is an essential process in creating something great.

You will fail

“To require perfection is to invite paralysis.”

Creating a website or digital experience is no different than painting a picture or composing a song. It is a artistic process that taps into the same parts of the brain and same creative drive that we all possess.

The reality about your web project — and every project before it and every project after it — is that it will have failures.

Failures can be big, or failures can be small.

Costly or rewarding.

Embarrassing or enlightening.

They can spoil a relationship with a client, or they can strengthen it.

I often get a lot of push-back when I suggest showing clients lo-fi prototypes or works-in-progress. The argument I hear goes something like this:

“Let’s wait until its closer to finished because if we show it to client they might not understand that it’s a work in progress and they’ll shop it around internally and we’ll open ourselves up to a lot of criticism and the client will log a bunch of bugs and the client will ask a lot of questions…”.


Great. What’s the problem?

If the client spots an obvious failure in the way we’re executing, then better to call it out now than when we’ve spent all of their money.

Be honest with your client and with your team. Failure is going to happen. Put it to work.

You must fail

“The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential.”

If you want to create amazing work, you have to fail.

The purpose of failing is not to find what doesn’t work, it’s to reveal things that you didn’t know before.

Failure in website design reveals new usability patterns.

and new business cases.

and new code architecture techniques.

and new functional requirements.

and new ways to engage with users.

To the artist, these discoveries elevate the craft and help express the vision.

To the business, these discoveries lead to strengthened relationships with existing clients and new opportunities elsewhere.

The art of failure

Make failure a part of your process.

Your team should not try to skirt failures in order to save face. To do so would be paralyzing. Instead embrace a workflow that values failure over perfection.

Work in smaller cycles that force failures to happen early and often, but also allow for new ideas to arise and push the project forward in the right direction.

“What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece. The place to learn about your materials is in the last use of your materials. The place to learn about your execution is in your execution Put simply, your work is your guide: a complete, comprehensive, limitless reference book on your work.”

I hope your next project is met with much failure!

All quotes are pulled from “Art and Fear”. Buy it, its a great book.

    Luke Askew

    Written by

    I create things on the internet.