The following is an essay I wrote together with Florian Schmitt (hi-res.net) for the Offf 2009 festival in Lisbon. Florian and I will also host a panel on Saturday, May 9th with Aaron Koblin, PES, and Joshua Davis, to discuss the ‘Fail Gracefully’ theme. Come say hi!
We fail. We all do, and our failures often say more about us than our successes do. But we hide failure, we are ashamed of it and we often just deny it altogether. For almost a decade the Offf festival have featured successful digital creators in design and experimental sound and have celebrated the cutting edge of digital aesthetics. This year, we shed some light on the dark side of success and discover the dynamics and aesthetics of failure.
When technology fails it can fail miserably and it can fail gracefully, and if it is graceful enough failure might not be noticed or even appreciated as success. In that sense, ‘Fail Gracefully’ is an essential strategy working with anything digital. Web designers, working for a certain screen resolution make sure their layout will fail gracefully when viewed in lower resolutions or in different devices. Motion graphics designers confine typography to the safe areas of the screen and account for shifting color depth as different televisions display the image differently. Even sound designers when choosing an audio compression make sure the audio fails gracefully and compromises only sounds beyond the human ear’s hearing scope.
Can you spot the pattern? To make sure our technologically communicated message fails gracefully we have to consider for the technology used by the recipient of our digital work. Technological constraints are a given challenge and working within them always foster creativity. In that sense even a successful message should have a fail-strategy encoded into it and should account for scaling levels of success based on the decoding of the message.
But can we extend this approach beyond our use of technology? In many cases it will not be our mastery of technological do’s-and-don’ts that determines how our message is decoded. Cultural context is a major decoder and like screen resolutions it changes from one recipient to the other. Do we account for scaling levels of communication? Can we incorporate a fail-strategy into our work based on changing cultural context? How do we account for the hybrid cultural contexts fostered by new network cultures? How can we reshape the way we communicate to account for these largely diverse and multi-layered cultural contexts?
To begin developing fail-strategies into our work we have to first realize one thing – a message that failed to communicate the ideas we encoded into it still communicates something. Ignoring that error might lead to a miserable failure, investigating that error and designing that failure is the key to developing a graceful failure strategy.
From error tracking to re-framing failure
Many of us use code as the building blocks of our creative work. When our code fails we want to know why, so we can fix it. Luckily programming languages are logical and a good development environment will provide robust error tracking capabilities to make sure that when something brakes we know what it is and can easily trace it. The ability to work within a defined logical language, to easily track bugs and compare changes have been crucial to the development of software and to the social structures that evolved around its production. Specifically free and open source software have extended these characteristics to a completely new social production process and an inspiring radical economic movement.
Our communicated message is executed in a much more complex environment and is not processed by a purely logical and controlled system. Tracking failure is harder in design and so is the ability to compare changes and collaborate as successfully as seen in the open source production process. Designers keep on developing new languages for each and every work. If developers had to collaborate on code without knowing what programming language it will be written in, we would have not enjoyed the type of thriving open source revolution we enjoy today.
But given the challenges, how can we still harness mutual success/failure assessment to enhance collaboration? One lead we might still take from the software world is the re-framing of failure. It is true, the “were in ‘Beta'” fashion is kind of lame, but there’s something to it. As in: “our product is functional, but not done” or “expect it to fail, as we’re still figuring this thing out”. So by claiming that the service is in ‘beta’ the providers are asking for a bit more patience to failure, they might even encourage the users to report failure. Indeed there is something comforting about the window pops up that appears when the browser crashes and asks you to send an error report, so they can inspect the failure and hopefully fix it. Open source software takes it even a step further, as when the code is open you can either report the error or just try to fix it yourself. In that sense, failure actually becomes an invitation to participate. Architect Stuart Brand said: “All buildings are predictions. All predictions are wrong” – To a certain degree, the same can be said about the cognitive systems in which design functions. If so, can we fail gracefully enough as to turn error to an opportunity for re-engagement?
The social media boom of the past few years have gotten designers to build more open-ended tools for user generated content. Yet the design process itself often remains closed. Designers have been experimenting with these open collaboration systems – the more open a system is, the more moving parts it has, the more inputs and outputs it supports, the more it is prone to fail. These so called failures can lead to its demise but if gracefully enough handled they can become happy accidents.
Aaron Koblin is a designer mainly involved with visualization of large data-sets. After visualizing existing passive data (like logs of communication and transportation networks), Koblin was inspired to collect the datasets by himself and make the input more human than technical. In the Ten Thousand Cents project (2008, with Takashi Kawashima) the image of a $100 bill was spliced into a grid of 10,000 pieces to be redrawn separately by online participants, each for the fee of $0.01. While the accuracy of the work varies between the precise recreation to the rebellious subversion of the task, the final image maintains its coherence in spite of the distributed failure. Moreover, Koblin’s drawing tool is deliberately hard to master and actually encourages imprecise drawing results. The user’s struggle with the drawing interface, captured and animated in Koblin’s piece, multiplied by 10,000 amounts to an aggregation of distributed failure to master the tool or comply with the task and becomes the source for the work’s success.
Koblin’s tight grid and explicit task (“redraw this abstract image”) provided the structure for distributed creative contribution. Much like with open source code, the larger task is spliced into small building blocks that when functioning in a predefined structure and coherent language achieves a collaborative task that would be hard or even impossible to achieve through a classic hierarchical and controlled production process.
Koblin’s limited drawing interface incorporated the users failure into each contribution’s unique aesthetics. Our tools dictate the nature of our work. Design software try to provide a simple and efficient workflow and still not limit the creative output. But even the most professional software creates its own aesthetics, that’s why for example we might say a certain work “looks too Photoshoped”.
Signwave’s Auto-Illustrator (2001) exposed and ridiculed the hidden power struggle between designers and their tools. This parody version of Adobe Illustrator involved tools, features and filters that often controlled the designer more than the designer could control them. Many designers were excited about this opportunity to challenge their production process, and Signwave actually released Auto-Illustrator as a commercial software.
Software interfaces define the boundaries of our work, but only exploration into the margins of these tools, beyond the intended use pattern can really expose these boundaries. In that sense in order for us to brake out of the design paradigm embedded in software we must use it “the wrong way”. By all means, designers should be hackers, do what we’re not supposed to, make your software fail, crash, burn… find the exploits of our tools, it’s the only healthy and true relationship we can have with them. When we reach the boundaries and have learned enough, we can go and make our own tools, explore their failures, and excel within them. Like Offf’s poster-child, Joshua Davis, who has built his custom made design tools and has developed his entire aesthetic style around these generative ‘managed failures’.
The aesthetic of Glitches has formed new kinds of visual expressions (from the current craze of Datamoshing all the way back to Carson, et al, dirty print and print errors, etc), sonic worlds (Oval, Alva Noto, et al) as well as fashion trends (Margiela’s deconstructed blazers, Hedi Slimane’s destroyed sweaters or Rick Owens’ long cardigans which deliberately drag on the floor come to mind). These are the worlds we weren’t supposed to see, but also the worlds which are a million times more exciting than the one we may live in. Which is why artists and designers often seek naïvety and a sense of ‘ignorance’ in their process, because it takes them to places they couldn’t ever consciously steer towards: Learning the rules only to be able to forget them in order to be able to be surprised again. Which is what’s great about kids. They practice complete anarchy if you let them be. They fail, they succeed, but there’s no classification, everything has the same value, because it all becomes one coherent experience. The commercial world we inhabit doesn’t necessarily work like this, but where possible it could become a valuable part of our creative process. As Kierkegaard is said to have put it: “Take a chance and you may fail. Do not take a chance and you have failed already.”
Of Contexts and Intentions
Joshua Davis’s work, like the work of many other talented designers have been often presented outside of the design context. These outstanding works might be referred to as: “This is more than design, it’s a work of art”. While we always welcome compliments, especially coming from a highly hierarchical and inaccessible circles of the art world, we should be careful with this framing of our work. It is true, a design work might be relevant in more than one context, but much like art, design is an intention, and unlike art, design’s intention is first and foremost communication rather than expression. The design work might be highly expressive, and indeed many of the works presented in Offf explore the aesthetic expression methods we use, but our explorations are still within the design discourse. There is a danger in defining ‘art’ as a value judgment, not only because not every art = good, but mainly because not every design = bad, or uninspiring or insincere. Moreover, in some cases the success of a design work in art context might conceal its failure to communicate. In that case context and intentions are key to success/failure assessment. We might intend to communicate a message, express it in fabulous colors and without anyone noticing, quietly and gracefully fail into a different context where our initial intentions are subverted and defused.
Designers in a failing world
These days our ability to assess success and failure is extremely important as we constantly witness more structures and institutions fail around us. With the failing of the financial systems, the danger to our environment and the continuous fear-mongering and violence around the world, designers should revisit their personal agendas and responsibilities. Since we discuss design as an intention, it is time to get back on track and question these intentions. We are often accused of being insincere, especially when our work is used as a mean for persuasion. In defence, many of us will attempt to draw an imaginary border between our day-jobs (where we function as hired guns) and our personal non-commercial work, which we might even (shoot ourselves in the leg and) refer to as ‘art’. This dichotomy is wrong and even dangerous. There is a way around it which involves a more critical examination of our intentions. While we are hired and payed by one certain entity we should not exclusively tie our agency to that party. Design’s intention is first and foremost communication, this in itself means it should serve more than one side. The rise of new media and the internet have stressed this balance even more. User experience is the driving force behind a successful interaction design work, relational aesthetics have been moved to the forefront of our design pallet – when the competing message is only a click away the user’s needs move to the forefront.
Responsible design cannot allow itself to fail in the fundamental stage of defining intentions and agency. These intentions should be challenged on a daily basis, in every work – the sponsor of the design work is not its only client and should not exclusively determine its agenda. We are seeing the failure of institutions all around us (financial, national, religious, regional, family…) and the rise of new network based cultures. While once we could enjoy (?) monolithic unidirectional communication channels, today our work is less controlled, more transient and exposed beyond the context we initially direct it for. We are required to rethink not only our failure strategies, but our agency altogether.
“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” –Paul Romer – Economist
But away from tools which encourage failure or aforementioned managed and conjured up failures, there is creative failure in a more general sense: The moments when things don’t work out the way you thought they would and you have to deal with it there and then, when failure forces you into action, immediate action, to salvage what you can and the immense surprises that this sometimes throws up, the times when it actually gets better than you intended. And the moments it doesn’t. It’s these moments that make you feel more alive than anything, the moments that make your heart race, for good or bad. It is the reason we love live TV going wrong, failing traffic lights, three legged dogs and misprints. It’s what forces us to improvise and makes our world edgy in the truest sense and to an extent defines us as much, if not more, than our successes.
Failing gracefully is a state of mind, an approach to progress in the creative process. We fail, we freak out, we get over it. We fail, and then use failure as an invitation to participate. We allow for distributed failure, and succeed together despite that. We fail, as to not get too comfortable in our success, to challenge our own process and the use of our tools. We fail, we get praised for it, we try again. We fail, we realize it, we recheck our agency, our networks, our intentions. We fail (gracefully), and so should you.