Failure as a Form of Synthesis

In our capstone project we’ve been doing a lot of research on failure and reframing it not as something to regret, but as something to celebrate as part of success. In reading many of these articles this past week I was reminded of my own failures. 

Order Muppet

Am I an Order Muppet? Let me just say that when I was Art Director at Whole Foods Market I was sometimes called the branding police. I would do a store visit and walk the floor with the designer and if something wasn’t in alignment with the brand, (wrong colors, wrong font, unapproved photo) I’d pull it and ask them to redo it and talk to them about why. 

We were having our annual summit and there were over 30 store designers in the room and we were having a quick “show and tell” where the designers each shared one best practice in under 2 minutes. One designer brought something that was clearly outside of brand standards but he was so proud of it and it had actually increased their sales. 

Several people were looking at me, like, “Well, are you going to say something?” And I felt the clock ticking. I felt my heart rate going up and I knew it was now or never. And I chickened out. I said nothing, thanked him for sharing and moved to the next person. 

I felt like a coward. And a failure. How could I call myself a leader and not lead? How could I say I loved branding and not enforce the brand standards?

I shared this with a coworker after the session and she said, “Are you kidding me? You know how sensitive Ángel* is! Calling him out in front of his peers? You would have CRUSHED him!” She was right. I hadn’t failed, I’d trusted my gut. I pulled him aside later and gave him that feedback, which he was receptive to. 

Designing for vs. Designing with 

When I was rebranding the materials at Castle Hill Fitness I had pretty free rein (within a budget and within the new brand guidelines, of course). So when it came time to redesign their class schedule, I thought outside the box. At Whole Foods, lots of my coworkers went to Castle Hill Fitness (it was right across the street) and we had the schedule posted on the bulletin board in the hallway. So I thought, I’ll make a poster!

And I did.

Castle Hill Fitness Class Schedule

It folded up to a half-page size for easy portability and I was pretty proud of it. Several months later, some CHF employees took the schedules to an event and when people started to open them, they saw how complicated it was and set them back down. Some people didn’t even take them. I made a really cool product that nobody wanted to interact with!

So I iterated. The next version folded to the same size but was a z-fold so it was easier to read quickly.

Castle Hill Fitness Class Schedule Z-fold

Had I understood the value of user-centered design, I’d have asked clients what they wanted in a class schedule (designing with) and done some user testing before the final print instead of just printing what I thought was cool and assuming that everyone would think it was cool too (designing for).

My Privilege / the best of intentions

Richard Anderson asked us to read about a high-end grocery store in an area of San Francisco where the people on the streets “have little hope of eating food of any acceptable level of quality.” And I was reminded of privilege and how easy it is for the privileged to be blind to the needs of those around you. And yes, by privileged and blind I mean me. 

About 7 years ago I volunteered for a program through the Austin Public Library called Talk Time. Talk Time is a program for English conversation practice with other English language learners and English speaking volunteers. I was the volunteer. The program is open to any adult who speaks some English and wants an informal and safe place to practice with others. All I had to do was show up and speak English to people who wanted to learn it. I didn’t need a curriculum or lesson plans, just an openness to conversing with strangers. People weren’t always forthcoming so I usually tried to think of neutral questions to ask and we’d go around the room and answer them. 

In one of the sessions, about 10 people came in at once. They’d just arrived that morning from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I wasn’t aware of all the violence that was displacing the Congolese people. And I still tried to ask my questions that I thought were neutral. One question I remember asking was–and I’m horrified/blushing just thinking about it, “What’s your dream vacation?” One woman answered, “This is my dream vacation. I’m here, finally, I’m safe.”

Unlike my previous 2 stories, there’s no real feel-good ending to this story. I didn’t find out that my gut was right; I didn’t get to iterate and make it better. All I can do is keep trying to face my privilege and at the very least, not offend people and at the very most, use it for good.

*not his real name