#6 Sketch: Hey everybody, let’s fail!

This is an ongoing series, based on conversations with Bruce Mau, to help people working in the brand-experience medium embrace and apply the 24 Design Principles. I believe that spending time with these interrelated, non-linear habits of thinking can help us realize better outcomes – at work, in our personal lives, and in the world at large.

Anyone who has ever scrubbed crayon marks off the wall knows that children are born with the instincts of a designer. We are all makers. We want to capture and share our thoughts. Unfortunately for many of us, somewhere along the way, the confidence to sketch whatever is in our heads is discouraged — we’re laughed at or given a poor grade — and we stop trying.

By the time we reach adulthood and engage in business, we’re told to “do it right the first time, every time.” Failure is anathema. Of course, we all want to do our best for our customers. So why does the sixth design principle encourage us to sketch … and fail? Bruce Mau makes it clear in his design workshops that, in the course of formulating concepts, we need to fail early and often, because failure is the essence of design.

“The designer starts with not knowing how to do it,” Bruce explains. “If we did, we’d just do it. It wouldn’t be design, it’d be production. The design process demands that we start by admitting we don’t know the solution. We need a cultural acceptance that we’re going to fail a lot. I want people to fail 100 times so that they get the one most brilliant way to do it.”

That’s where sketching comes in. “Sketching” may or may not involve drawing – it’s simply a quick, low-cost way to capture and share a prototype. It could involve creating a short description with words … dashing out a high-level budget … using Play-doh to make a model … or just snapping a photo and adding a note that says, “something like this, but with fish instead of birds.”

The good news is that anyone can sketch in this way; but like so many things, it takes practice and hard work. The more you make it part of your routine, the more you try to generate, capture and share lots of potential solutions, the better you get. And the more everyone on your team does it, the better your collective results. It’s a collaborative process. The point is to capture and share, quickly, to keep the flow of ideas coming, so that the process is quick and cheap and hugely productive.

Bruce refers to this as starting with low-resolution ideas and then adding detail, over time, as the iterative process of refinement and testing (or approvals) progresses. This may take a little more time up front, but it saves a lot of cost in do-overs, because the design has been poked, prodded and proven before any of the build dollars are spent.

This process reminds me of an adage that salespeople will recognize – it takes 100 “no’s” to get to “yes.” Think about design this way. The more quickly we can conceptualize and share several rough concepts, the more quickly (and cheaply) we can reach the optimal solution. Thomas Edison understood this in his relentless pursuit of the light bulb. He’s quoted as saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

This is where unconditional love comes into play for design thinkers. We need to encourage each other to fail quickly and cheaply in the formulate phase of a project. And we need to give ourselves permission to sketch out and share half-baked ideas — lots of them — to be tossed into the salad of ideas that lead us closer to the right one.

“I want to be able to look at it and know, is this plausible? Is this promising? Is this something that we could accomplish? And really use the sketching method to turn that cycle as quickly as possible and as many times as possible in the process,” Bruce explains. “Because the more times you actually explore something, and decide yes or no, the more opportunity you have to get an amazing result.”

Every day it seems there is some new app or software to help us sketch ideas digitally and even physically. You can actually buy 3D printers that children can program with kid-friendly software. Clearly, the barrier isn’t our ability to sketch. It’s our reluctance. We are fighting years of being taught not to share something that’s less than perfect. Many artists talk about having to re-learn to see and experience things as a child — unselfconsciously.

We can help each other get there by jumping into the sketching process with enthusiasm and by surrounding the process with unconditional love. It doesn’t matter whose idea is chosen. We just need to remember that each sketch brings us closer to what beautiful looks like. Our design quality goes up. Our costs go down. And everybody wins. Especially our clients.