Going Public about Failure: 5 Designers Share Life-Changing Mistakes

Going Public about Failure: 5 Designers Share Life-Changing Mistakes

Earlier this week, I wrote about the concept of “fail fast” and how it is being championed in organizations around the world. If you’re not familiar with it, fail fast is about making small mistakes and responding quickly with new iterations and changes while working towards a bigger goal. It’s the antithesis of holing up to create something in isolation and then present it to the world expecting everything to go well.

Companies that create products, like Dyson vacuums, to those that provide consulting, like PwC, use this method with success. By instilling it within the culture of their organization, it allows employees to practice and learn along the way, and in turn produce positive results for their customers and clients.

But what happens when, despite your best efforts and intentions, you still fail big?

How do you recover and overcome a huge mistake? For many of us, our loved ones and confidants receive the brunt of our crushing blows. They stand beside us, helping us through the agony. They create a safe place where we learn to retell the story in a “constructive” way.

Here’s a challenge to that: what if you just said, “I fucked up?”

And, to take it one step further, what if you told this to colleagues, peers, and even complete strangers?

Five well-known designers just did this.

Earlier this month, five London-based practitioners with extensive experience in the fields of architecture, design, planning, and international development publicly shared huge fails.

It was AzuKo’s annual fundraising event, which combined raising funds for a sanitation project in Bangladesh, participating in #GivingTuesday, and hosting the first design-focused FuckUp Night in London.


The five key f-ups from Jo, Jonty, Lauren, Finn, and Jack need to be shared beyond the event. There are lessons in each of them that each of us can learn from and take forward into our daily lives.

(Note: I’ve also elected to not identify the f-up’s storyteller until I gain permission. But this shouldn’t make these lessons any less important.)


1. I fucked up by not speaking up against sexism.

Everyday this designer hears sexist remarks against women. From panels to boardroom meetings and sidewalks to Twitter, s/he is faced with a decision to speak up versus pipe down.

His/her recommendation to address these remarks is to act not with aggravation but rather understanding: ask, why did you say that? Or, what makes you say that?


2. I fucked up by not setting reasonable expectations.

When working as the middleperson between a large organization and local communities, your primary role is to manage expectations and communicate between both sides. It sounds much easier than it is.

This designer learned the hard way when the report they produced was put on a dusty shelf. After spending time gathering information from local residents and using the insights to provide recommendations to the large organization, the findings have not been put into place, leaving everyone frustrated.

Their recommendation to alleviate this in the future? Have a clear understanding of how the large organization will use your work from the start so this can be communicated when researching with local citizens.


3. I fucked up by becoming an accomplice.

How many times have you seen a new building going up and thought it was underwhelming? This planner did, too, and s/he thought they could make big changes by working for local government. However, despite her/his best intentions, those mediocre buildings were still being erected—and they ended up becoming accomplices.

Rather than rejecting planning applications, s/he worked with the architects and developers to improve the design. Only in one instance did they feel somewhat proud of the result of this process; the rest s/he can’t even look at.

What they took away from it: understand the constraints and the inputs from the start. If you already anticipate a mediocre outcome, then scrap it. And, begin with smaller risks.


4. I fucked up by taking a comedy check.

Money, money, money… money! It can seem so enticing, especially when it’s a huge sum and comes with what appears to be complete faith in what you do. However, this designer learned the hard way that behind big money comes a lot of unexplained motivations. S/he nearly had to shut the doors of their firm because of a comedy check they accepted.

What should you do if you’re presented with a comedy check? Say no. And keep doing what you do well.


5. I fucked up by letting my ego guide my work.

This designer spent years working in an African country with an international NGO. S/he shared stories of embarrassing local people, aggressively pressuring colleagues, and being a downright a$$hole in a place where s/he was sent to do “good work.” In short, they let their ego get the best of them.

What can you do differently? Follow this wisdom from Courtney E. Martin in her article on “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems.”

Don’t go because you’ve fallen in love with solvability. Go because you’ve fallen in love with complexity.

Don’t go because you want to do something virtuous. Go because you want to do something difficult.

Don’t go because you want to talk. Go because you want to listen.

Don’t go because you loved studying abroad. Go because, you plan on putting down roots.

Do any of these failures resonate with you? Leave a comment below and get one skeleton out of the closet!

Image source: Elicea Andrews

Want more news like this?

Join hundreds of designers who get tips, strategies, and support on doing more impactful work with the Design Affects monthly newsletter.

Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a reply