Fail Forward: Design from failure, design through failure, design for failure

Presented by: Leah Scolere, Sheila Danko

Design industry leaders have emphasized the importance of failure as central to the design process and key to innovative design solutions. (Brown, 2009; Maeda, 2011). The 2014 CIDA Future Vision Report calls on designers to “engage in risk-taking (and potential failure) to arrive at remarkable solutions” (p.5). While opportunities for risk-taking on small scale hypothetical problems is easy, failure in real life at the scale and complexity of space design is daunting. How then do we incorporate the process of failure –so central to design learning and leadership – into studio education? To better understand this critical aspect of teaching, this paper presents three cases studies from the “Living Learning Lab” studio project series including a stair sculpture, a media wall and an office for engaged learning (see Appendix). These real projects challenge students to address real issues, clients and time constraints. The cases chosen illustrate several methods to help students experience failure, communicate failure, and think about the role of failure as a way forward. These methods include crowdsourcing studio ideas, advancing key innovations through grouping and regrouping of project teams, and designing for failure. Conceptualizing Failure Failure is less threatening when conceptualized as a continuum of interactions that are scaffolded from low risk to high risk. When we think about opportunities to have students engage with failure, we explored failure as a specific learning outcome from low discomfort to high. The low end of the continuum provides an easier entry point, “a beginner’s level,” to discomfort than the more extreme failure at the other end. LOW END of Risk Continuum Design from Failure: Crowdsourcing Pairs of students contributed to a general pool of ideas from which project teams could choose a “springboard idea” to develop. Individual ideas were simultaneously embraced or discarded in the process. This can happen within a studio and/or it can extend to another group of students outside studio. MIDDLE of Risk Continuum Design through Failure: Group/Regroup Structuring the studio interaction around design elimination or advancement, students competed in teams to propose a big idea of how to approach the design problem. The case illustrates how certain teams failed, but their thinking advanced the guiding principles for the design. Collaborative work occurred when teams that didn’t have the opportunity to advance, learned how to let go of their ideas, and join the advancing team to help move that vision forward. HIGH END of Risk Continuum Design for Failure: Micro Failures Drawing on the engineering approach of anticipating failure in order to ensure successful design (Petroski, 1992), students were challenged to mock-up and prototype a way that their idea could fail. Creating the goal of failure, allowed students to move past the paralysis of potential failure that frequently occurs when they are faced with the pressure of a real client and real project implementation. Implications By structuring design studios with opportunities for students to design from failure, design through failure, and design for failure, we can start to create studio environments where failure and success are not binary or hierarchical. Rather failure is one of many tools that can be leveraged as a part of the design process. These methods of crowdsourcing, group/regroup, and designing for failure help students face and move through the daunting process of designing real solutions. Overall, we found that micro-failings can lead to macro level success on real projects. Micro-failings that are examined, reflected on, and incorporated in the design process help ensure the strength of the idea and are a form of design research that can help build trust with clients. The presentation ends with additional implications related to knowledge transfer across student cohorts, and techniques for using failure to build trust wit


  • Brown, T. (2009). Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, HarperCollins Publishers.
  • Leski, K. (2015). The Storm of Creativity, MIT Press
  • Maeda, J. (2011). Redesigning Leadership: Simplicity, Technology, Design, Business, Life.
  • Petroski, H. (1992). To engineer is human. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • CIDA Future Vision Report. (2014). Retrieved from: