Spring 2009

Failure – the designer’s guardian angel [EXTRACT]

Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failures, and Lessons Learned

Edited by Steven Heller
Allworth Press, .95, £18.99

The phrase ‘Design Disasters’ is a bit of Helleresque sensationalism. Perhaps the great man has been spending too much time casting his connoisseur’s gaze over lurid pulp fiction book covers. The two ‘D’ words are cannily pitched to make us think about those hellish moments when work comes back from the printer on the wrong paper stock; or when the binding option we chose causes a brochure’s spine to crack; or when the client’s name is misspelt on the opening frame of an audiovisual presentation. Yet this is not a book about workplace mishaps or technical glitches. It’s about the ‘F’ word: failure, and the designer’s psychological and practical relationship to it.

Failure stalks the designer’s every move. Who has ever designed anything that was perfect? Who – other than the terminally smug – has ever held up a piece of work and said: ‘I’m thrilled with every aspect of this’? We are far more likely to hear designers say: ‘This is OK, but there’s a widow on page 203 and it kills me.’

Perpetual dissatisfaction is the designer’s natural state, and it is a refrain that runs through the twenty or so essays in this book . . .

This splendid little book has a strong flavour of the Zeitgeist about it. It barely merits its publisher’s categorisation as a ‘graphic design’ title . . . Who would have thought that this cult would ever be questioned, far less challenged? But thanks to one of the great ‘failures’ of the modern era – the cataclysmic collapse of banks and financial institutions around the world – we are being forced to re-examine such notions.

The idea of the ‘loser’ – the image of failure itself – is being reassessed before our eyes.

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