Design By Failure

March 20th 2018


Design is a process of internal failure. When you’re working on a brief, you try out lots of ideas. Mock them up, play with what they look like. Try prototypes until you get one that sticks. Design by failure. Saying that, I don’t believe in failure. Failure for me is giving up. Don’t give up. Focus on constantly tweaking and improving your ideas. Don’t expect your ideas to be perfect from the beginning. Perfection can be intimidating and it can stop you in your tracks, which happens to me a lot. Just start – get your idea down, try it, live with it, tweak it – you can always come back to it or let it go. If it’s a mistake, learn from it. In business and in life, nothing is fixed so have the agility to evolve with the times and the determination to keep trying.

When I left Pentagram and set up my own studio, I sat there waiting for the world to come to me. And nothing happened. I started to beat the bushes. I got out of the studio. No more hiding in plain sight; I had to make a living. You put stuff out there and the more you do, the more it attracts back to you. But there wasn’t just designing to do. All the details, big and small, the moving parts that were invisible to me at Pentagram, needed doing. I tried to control every single element in the business and in my life, and the speed got to the point where I couldn’t manage it. 

Having my very first assistant was phenomenally hard. It was hard to work with this guy. He wasn’t me! I needed the help but I didn’t know what to do with it. I made him cry several times, and ended up doing two people’s work. Then I resented him even more because I was paying him. I had the ideas in my head, but this ninny couldn’t read my mind! When I left him alone, he didn’t do the things that I would have done. It’s hard to delegate that work. It’s hard to bypass that process that you’ve used year after year. So I got my next assistant, and the next one and the next one. And I was still the busiest person in the business. 

The work was going out. The world was coming to me. I was asked to judge global design competitions, asked to contribute articles to design publications. And I did. And that took even more time. I was flattered. But every assignment, every brief that came in put the onus on me: “I owe them the best job possible.” 

If I had known then what I know now: my first assistants were paralysed by my lack of trust. So they didn’t trust themselves to do anything, lest they upset me. The only thing they did that I would have done is leave. I found more victims. Soon I had a studio with five people. Which meant more work for me. I worked my brains out. I was so focused on the design projects in front of me, I couldn’t deal with the “business” of design. I didn’t know how to delegate. My left and right brain didn’t function as one.

By 1995, I had moved into a great studio space on Great Sutton Street in Clerkenwell. I had a staff of six. Six people reporting to me. I was excited, frustrated, exhausted, stretched. And they were asking things from me that I didn’t know how to resolve. You get so busy that someone’s been working for you for three years and you barely know them. They get unhappy and they leave. And you curse yourself: why didn’t I look after that person? Why didn’t I understand their ambitions, accommodate them, nurture them? I had failed them. 

I came to realise – through a lot of pain and stress and uncertainty (trying and failing) – that I had to be a manager. That it was a separate task in itself and I needed to delegate a part of myself to the process. I didn’t trust that part of myself but I had no choice. Michael Gerber says “You have to delegate, not abdicate.” You need to be clear about your vision for the business and make sure the people who work for you understand that vision. When you work out how to do that, you realise how valuable your people are. It was only when I learned to enjoy being a manager, to make sure I had the right people and to trust them that things really began to improve. 

Most businesses are started by someone who is good at something, a technician. But they have no idea how to run a business. They know how to do what they do but they don’t know how to make the business succeed. And that’s why most new businesses fail. Because they have no vision, or if they do, no systems in place to support it. 

The only reason my business didn’t fail is because I spent the better part of ten years at a fever pitch. Externally, everything looked great. Good clients. Good projects. Good staff. The work was getting done. Somehow I got married, had a kid. And it’s all a blur. Until Japan.

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