Posted by: Liz Massey | January 14, 2009

Embracing Creative Failure (I): Getting It Half-Right


Photo courtesy SXC.

Today begins a three-part series on the positive value of creative “failure” — that is, projects and ideas that end up on the proverbial dump heap and are not brought to fruition.

Now, you may be thinking, how could there be anything good about failure? Failure sucks.

And there are times when this is unequivocally true. If your art making is for pay, and/or especially public, failing at the wrong time—in an audition, or when submitting an article for publication—can be deadly to one’s professional progress.

But learning to make friends with everyday failure (which I differentiate from the large-scale, high-stakes failure situations  just mentioned) can be one of the best ways to ensure creative successes. This series will dig deep to find those creative “diamonds” hidden in the “rough” landscape littered with what appears to be failures, setbacks and defeats.

Learning to love quick and dirty

One of the easiest ways to begin to embrace the advantages of creative “failure” is to shift to a process of creation that embodies a concept known as “rapid iteration.” The concept essentially asks a creator to come forward with a rough version of an artwork or product, subject it to real-world feedback, and continue to refine it through a series of “iterations,” which can be versions, drafts, rough cuts, etc. The term originally developed as a way to describe software development methodologies.

Writing in a 2003 edition of Linda Naiman’s Creativity at Work newsletter, Robert D. Austin and Lee Devin, the authors of “Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know About How Artists Work,” explain why the common wisdom about careful planning being a prerequisite for workplace success is frequently wrong:

“For one thing, you can’t always know your destination in advance. Whether you’re-designing a new product, running a business in volatile conditions, operating a process that might encounter unforeseen inputs, or just trying to figure out what to do with your life, the journey usually involves exploration, adjustment, and improvisation. Situations in which you don’t or can’t know the results in advance are common and consequential.”

Austin and Devin note that rapid iteration can work in a number of creative and business environments, effectively “creating form out of disorganized materials.” Collaborating artists, they note, use the human brain as their principal technology and ideas as their principal material, work with a very low cost of iteration. In other words, ideas are cheap—it’s the reworking of one’s original thoughts that really adds value.

What iteration looks like

How does this process work when developing a creative product? One team that did a great job of explaining how they used iterative or “agile” processes in the development of a creative deliverable was Team Crunchberry, a group of journalism graduate students at Northwestern University. The group spent last year developing News Mixer, an interactive news site for a media client in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as a class project. In a brief series of posts on the team blog describing how they used agile processes to pull their site together, Brian Boyer wrote:

“(Agile development) is about accepting that it’s impossible to design up front.  It’s a tough idea to shake, but by embracing the chaos, you save yourself from perfectionism … With agile, you plan less up front, and correct your course along the way. You design a little bit, build a little bit, test a little bit, and then look up. Are we still on course?”

The Team Crunchberry blog has detailed information on how they focused on releasing and testing small, discrete “chunks” of their site while concurrently designing and developing other chunks. They describe their daily “scrums” (stand-up 5 minute meetings), their weekly workflow, and provide a sample of how “chunks” in process move from one area to another.

(The group has also published a comprehensive report on the development process behind their site, if you want the full story.)

Graphic designers, who often favor up-front vision and planning to more free-for-all methods, have also taken to rapid iteration and agile development methods, albeit with reservations. In a very thoughtful 2004 article in Interactions magazine that critiqued agile/iterative methods from the standpoint of a designer, John Armitage drew a parallel between iterative work and drawing:

“Designing software is actually not too different from drawing. Advanced drawing instruction, in fact, has students repeatedly create figure drawings one after another, rendered in impossibly short times such as 15 seconds or less. The goal is to eliminate perfectionism, loosen the gesture, and force the artist to keep their eye on the subject.

“Having a plan is good, but the best artists have a dialog with the drawing. Agile methods can benefit design when they allow the system, and customers, to talk back to the designer with live experience, and afford the opportunity for the designer to respond.”

Opening to feedback—internally or externally generated—in the midst of creation is the heart of rapid iteration. It is the “dialog with the drawing”—or short story, or song, or film—that allows greater richness and usefulness to emerge from the artwork, because the artist is no longer as constrained by the fear of showing an “imperfect” product.

Suggestions for making your creative activity more iterative

Reflect on your responses to feedback of your work. Do you like to wait until your artwork is “done” to show it to others? Why? What have been your responses to criticism of a work in progress?

Select a work in progress and seek a fresh opinion of it from someone you trust. Don’t show off your developing project randomly—you’re seeking kind-hearted and useful feedback, not discouragement or snobbery. But take a work you feel already has merit and show it to someone who may be able to help you improve it earlier in the game than you typically feel comfortable doing.

Experiment with assignments that force you to be agile. In a post last year on “the bare essentials” of creativity, I made a number of suggestions of things readers could do to determine the “minimum daily requirements” of their creativity, in terms of time, materials, location, etc. Returning to those experiments, or devising exercises such as the advanced drawing examples mentioned by Armitage, are two ways to encourage thinking of art-making as an ongoing process, rather than one marked predominantly by the one-time output of finalized artistic “deliverables.”


  1. […] which he calls “thinking with your hands.” It dovetails nicely with my experience with rapid iteration as a tool for more quickly and easily reaching creative excellence, through a series of […]

  2. […] a nice pep talk for pushing yourself beyond “safe” boundaries in your creativity and using your creative failures as grist for later, more successful […]

  3. […] series on embracing creative failure, and the first post concerned how to get comfortable with getting it half-right most of the time. In that post, I quoted Robert D. Austin and Lee Devin, the authors of “Artful […]

  4. […] Embracing Creative Failure (I): Getting It Half-Right From Creative Liberty: a three-part series on the positive value of creative “failure” — that is, projects and ideas that end up on the proverbial dump heap and are not brought to fruition. (tags: failure) […]

  5. […] is, projects and ideas that end up on the proverbial dump heap and are not brought to fruition. Go to Embracing creative failure (I): Getting it half-right → Published on Thursday, May 27, 2010 · Permalink Topics: creativity, failureFiled in […]

  6. […] limits) that will force you to start working and silence the inner critic. You can always revise things as you go along. Sometimes, you just have to dive in at the outset of an adventure to overcome your […]

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