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This article is a transcription of the #16 episode of IDology - the industrial design podcast by Mindsailors. You can watch the entire episode on YouTube or listen to the audio version on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.

In this episode our company’s COO, Voytek Holysz, met with the industrial senior designer and project manager at Mindsailors, Mikołaj Wiewióra, to raise the issue of failure in product design. They discussed the importance of failure, different perceptions of it, and ways to maximize its educational value. Let's check out this subject!

Voytek Holysz: Mikołaj, so is failure a good thing or a bad thing? How should we look at it?

Mikołaj Wiewióra: It always depends. I think that we better answer different questions or give you some examples on what failure in product design is?

Voytek: Okay.

Mikołaj: I think overall, it is a good thing.

Voytek: Failure?

Mikołaj: Yes, of course, in the context of product design because failure always teaches us something new. And it gives us more opportunities to solve the problem. And that could be the end of this episode.

Voytek: Thank you very much. That was short. <laughter>

Mikołaj: Yeah. But maybe let us explain something more about the failure and how we see the failure. Maybe I should start with a metaphor. Once upon a time, I was speaking with my mum and she was saying that when I was young, of course, not only me, but all of us. We were learning a lot in a small amount of time but we can see this amount of time because it lasts a year, for example.

Voytek: Okay. So you mean a toddler?

Mikołaj: Yes. Let’s bring an example on learning, on walking.

Voytek: Okay, so something very basic, but yet extremely new for a toddler.

Mikołaj: And he, little Mikołaj, as a young man doesn’t give a f*ck. He simply learns a little step each time, for example, how to stand up, how to hold furniture, anything that he could be more stabilized with, without knowing how to stand on two legs.

Voytek: So when you say that he doesn’t give a crap, that’s because he’s not afraid of failing. Basically, he’s not afraid of consequences because he doesn’t yet understand them. But still, there is no fear of the consequences.

Mikołaj: There is no fear. And he is very little, he has not a lot of distance to the floor so failing is not something bad. When we grow, we always perceive some probable failures as much greater risk for us than when we were young. This could be our main theme for this episode, because failure is something to learn from toddlers. They simply learn things by doing something and eventually, after a year of learning, they know how to walk and they do it really well. This is something to appreciate. Now, we take it for granted that we can walk. But remember - some time ago, 30, 40, 50 years ago, we had to learn it from scratch. So of course, it’s not the thing in product design that we always have to learn from scratch. It’s not a one to one metaphor. We do not want you to compare this metaphor to the new product development but this is something really strong - to be at least familiar with.

Voytek: Yeah, so if I understand correctly, your metaphor is more about simply how to perceive failure and how to use it as a lesson. Like a toddler when she or he learns to walk: it’s not like they trip the same way every time. But each trip, each fall gives the toddler sort of a new piece of information on how to make the next step more stable or better. It’s a learning process where there is no possibility of repeating the same mistakes because eventually you need to get rid of them.

Mikołaj: Yes, you will repeat them but the results will be different each time.

Voytek: Yeah, you will keep perfecting the moves.

Mikołaj: We have got another thing to talk about, it brings us an educational system or something that is more connected with our formal education and adulthood basically, adult life. Being creative and being able to accept failure is not very common in our life because, especially in Poland, there is a notion of being perfect at school.

Voytek: Yeah, having perfect grades.

Mikołaj: Perfect grades, being perfect at history, math and foreign language lessons, whereas every one of us is different and have different strengths. Simply, we are not allowed to fail without consequences. And where is the moment that we could do that, in our adult life? Certainly, it is difficult to be on the failure side all the time. Sometimes even our lives depend on our decisions so it’s not that good to fail in that period of life. But if you do not encourage young people to fail and learn from this failure, like they were learning as toddlers, this will simply discourage them from taking risks in their lives. Some professions, especially industrial design, and product design, all the things that need creativity to solve complex problems, depend on failure somehow, because we won’t push the world forward unless we do some bad steps in this process.

Voytek: Yes, because like you said, in adulthood, when we make mistakes as just people or professionals, there are real, serious, dire consequences that we are aware of. And consciously or subconsciously, we basically do everything we can to avoid them. However, that’s in terms of when we understand the consequences, and we know what we are doing. But a toddler learning to walk, it’s like this huge, innovative idea for a toddler -  walking using their legs. So with creativity, as I understand it, in an adult life, you have so much and such a variety of experiences and skills, that when it comes to making or coming up with creative solutions, you get to do it a lot more consciously, with an awareness of consequences and be able to calculate the risk and the potential consequence. At some point, the consequences aren't that bad, I guess, because you are searching for something still novel. I understand it like, when you have this metaphor of the toddler learning to walk, in adulthood, you are more like a professional dancer, that’s still trying to invent new moves, or new forms of dance, even, maybe types of dance that don’t exist yet. So you have skills, you have experience, you are agile on everything but still, you are going to fail a lot of times before someone tells you: “Yeah, this thing that you came up with, I can call it a dance and that actually makes sense, I like it, it will catch on”. So it’s a different type of learning but based on the same principle, if such a dancer would be afraid to fail, he wouldn’t invent anything. But is that a failure?

Mikołaj: It depends on what you will do with that. If you simply repeat the same failure all the time, and not do anything about it, it can be perceived as a failure, as your fault for not delivering the result.

Voytek: Your inability to learn.

Mikołaj: Yes, you just cannot take anything from what you learned and cannot put it into something creative, like a solution to the problem that you faced. I think that the difference between the toddler metaphor and your comparison to the dancer, is that a dancer is a professional who can plan for failure. Because once we are really good at something, we can pretty precisely know when we should try to fail… quickly... and when we shouldn’t, like having some calculations on how to avoid risks by simulating, for example, in CAD software. But when planning a prototype, for example, we should simply plan when or where in this prototype things can go wrong - just to learn something new from this.

Voytek: Yeah, so, I guess, this sort of fear of failure culture that you have mentioned at the beginning, is it like something that comes from this business side of things where we need to cut every risk to the minimum or cut it out totally? It’s difficult to plan for failure for someone who’s just looking at the baseline on a spreadsheet, and they’re thinking: “Okay, this will cost us money, and I don’t see that this will produce anything physical for us to work with, let’s avoid it, let’s try not to do it, maybe and let’s just go straight for success.”

Mikołaj: It is a good assumption - going for success for the first time. But it is always at cost. Sometimes, it is simply a huge cost of development, because you have to take two or three paths to this success to be sure that one of these paths is eventually successful. If you want all the things to happen at once, our experience and the history says that it’s not very probable. Some things may go wrong, even those things, that you are not dependent on, something from the external world can happen and then you just haven’t delivered the project. The business is of course, important, because they are your sponsors, your clients, your company is your sponsor for the project, and they define what is important for them. That’s why I think that it is really crucial to put this on the table - that failure is a part of a process of delivering something new. If you are delivering something repeatedly, it is easier to avoid some mistakes, because you already learned from something that you already made. However, if you are going into something totally new or a field that is a little bit new to you, this area is probably someplace to fail at some point. Maybe we are overusing this word failure, but you can also name it a learning curve. Some processes have a steep learning curve because you have to learn the process, the interface of the software, you have to learn some principles of operating in some environment and everything that is around us, you have to learn and learning is somehow connected to failing.

Voytek: Speaking of learning, you have mentioned school and the educational system before. That’s something that ingrained in us in a specific sort of way, or a method or a specific approach you should take to learning stuff and doing stuff. There are a lot of different educational systems in the world but there are really few places where people are 100% satisfied with those systems and how they teach you how to learn in the future, in your professional life, in your adult life. Most educational systems actually sort of teach us that failure is the worst thing possible, like getting a bad or a medium grade is not your goal, this is not something that you should aim at. You also said that you should calculate the failure into your process when designing, is this something that everyone basically needs to battle personally? Or is it something companies should enforce in some way?

Mikołaj: It is usually called a fail culture, I think, in companies, that they encourage people to fail at some point. There are some rules, like “fail quickly”, “fail fast”, you name it. The takeaway from such a framework is that you should learn from it. There is no possibility to simply fail and waste money, which is not the case for any company. There is no company in the world that would allow you to fail for no reason. Once you decide to design something new, the people who are your sponsors should be aware that you have this little piece of failure incorporated in your process and how you solve the problems or how you fail is usually your solution. Simply, I don’t know any framework that could be taught at school or in any different place that can be systematic.

Voytek: You actually mentioned a framework like “failing fast” that you have mentioned, it is a sort of a framework and “failing forward”, so within the direction of what you are looking to achieve... These are sort of frameworks on how to use them in a corporate failure.

Mikołaj: Yes, but they are giving you a rather pace or timeframe, when you should fail or how fast but they don’t tell you how to solve the problem.

Voytek: Well, yeah, but we are not talking about solving a problem. We are talking about how to use, in a smart way, failure as a stepping stone to solving a problem. If you fail fast, meaning early, so you don’t do a lot of work in a direction that turns out it doesn’t make sense. So you test that direction, in its core sort of assumption, as early as possible not to go in a way that doesn’t make sense. And just to make sure that the next time you are going to try something new, test, experiment, prototype or whatever, you do it in the right direction. So you fail forward, to pave the way, maybe a bit to the left a bit to the right but in the generally correct direction. These are, in a way, frameworks for how to treat failing as learning, basically.

Mikołaj: And moving forward, of course.

Voytek: Yes.

Mikołaj: Bringing this rather theoretical talk about failing, I think we should connect it with prototyping. This will enable everyone that is listening to us understand that a little bit more.

Voytek: Yeah, because prototyping is probably where failure is most important in product design, right?

Mikołaj: Yes. I have got an example of a 3D printed part, where the manufacturer of this 3D printed part said that the wall thickness of this shell that I have sent them was too small. And what do you do about it? In my geometry, in my 3D model, I had no space for a greater wall thickness and I didn’t want greater wall thickness, because of the elasticity of the part, I wanted the part to be elastic as much as possible. So I took a risk and said to the manufacturer: “Okay, the risk is on me. I have to try whether this is feasible, whether this is manufacturable or not; this is simply a prototype”. If I’d assume “Ok, you said that it is not possible to make, so let’s make it thicker and let’s change the design without testing”. Of course, probably, that part would be okay. But what would I learn? Nothing.

Voytek: Well, also it wouldn’t be as good as possible, the risk would be lower, and there would be fewer steps to success, but the success would also be smaller, because the elasticity would be gone and that’s something that you need it in the part.

Mikołaj: Yes, from my perspective, that would be a failure because I just gave up because someone said that this geometry is not allowed. And now finishing the story: I tried. It took us maybe a week to test it because it was not a simple 3D printer like FDM or Prusa printer,  it was MJF so it was more time consuming. But still, it is a week in a development process that was taking a year. So not a big deal. And we have learned, both, the manufacturer and me that this wall thickness that I suggested was okay, for this particular part. I am not taking this lesson as “Okay, I can use this for thickness for every design that I will imagine, but for this particular one, it is okay.” So everyone learned something new. We achieved what we wanted to achieve, not what we could achieve. The overall result was even better than the manufacturer of the printer, and the service that wanted the product to be made, assumed, saying “Okay, this is something that we should also check in our design process: that it is possible to manufacture within these parameters that you gave us, so… okay.”

Voytek: That’s actually a good point for— I would go back to the dancer metaphor, for a group dance to work, all the dancers need to be in sync and have the same sort of mindset, it’s basic teamwork. So when you set into a process that needs to fail a couple of times in order to find new ways to achieve something or just to create something new, then it’s much more efficient in every possible way. If the whole team has, for one, the same approach to failure and, two, they trust each other, because like you and the manufacturer - there was some tension and they said, “No,” and you also said, “No.” And they replied, “Okay, let’s do this like you say, we will see. It’s a test. It’s a prototype.” They trusted you and they weren’t stubborn, right? They could have said, “No. We don’t work like that. It’s our experience. No way. We just don’t.”

Mikołaj: Sure. But we simply would find anyone else that would manufacture that.

Voytek: That’s why working with trusted people—

Mikołaj: Yes, it’s important. And, of course, this story has no failure in sight but it was planned. It was planned that it might—

Voytek: It could have been a failure.

Mikołaj: Yes, it could have been a failure. And nothing could go wrong with that. No one would be killed, no one would suffer from that failure. And it’s a good failure on that scale. A failure would be if we didn’t try in that context. So I think that it’s worth mentioning that sometimes planning a failure doesn’t always end in a failure. It brings you something new and something good.

Voytek: Yeah. Well, that’s also how you build as a company, as a product manufacturer, that’s how you basically gain advantage over your competition: by coming up with new things that the competition, for example, was too afraid to test, to try, to see if they are even possible.

Mikołaj: Because they are familiar with their process. They know what they can do. And they think they can’t do anything else. They think because they didn’t try so they didn’t give themselves permission to fail. Simple as that.

Voytek: Sure. So I guess we can try to sum up a bit, maybe there is a culture of seeing failure as something to be avoided at all costs. But in the creative industry, in general, and in product design, especially, and especially when it comes to prototyping, this is maybe not something that you should actually aim for but you should consciously include it in your design process.

Mikołaj: Yes, you should. If you don’t want to fail, you should ask an OEM manufacturer (Original Equipment Manufacturer) to manufacture a thing that they already make in hundreds and thousands of pieces, and simply give them a little bit of change in overall design - external case, let’s say, and nothing can go wrong. But what will be our product? This will be another product that is working, and you have got to invest a lot in marketing, so that your product will be selling well.

Voytek: But this has two sorts of— there are two sides to this coin. One is that you personally, as a designer, need to accept failure as a part of your process, which is all great if you either are a one-man army or you are the boss at your company… but when you work at a company where you are a designer, and your company doesn’t support that, it’s very difficult to innovate. It’s maybe even impossible to innovate. So this acceptance of failure in the process is both personal for an individual and global for a company.

Mikołaj: If you are brave enough to introduce fail culture in your company, it’s cool. And you want this company to be innovative because you take care of your company, you just want to be there for an extended period of time so you build that. But still, if your boss or organization is not giving you a chance to show how that might inspire others and how that might finally impact innovation in your company… The best solution is probably to change the company, unfortunately. It is really difficult, especially in those well-established markets like in automotive, aerospace, and these more sort of conservative fields, where innovation takes years, even tens of years rather than months. Bringing this culture into the lives of such companies, of course, I am not saying that automotive companies are not innovative - they are, but they have got such a lot of different fields.

Voytek: It’s a lot more difficult to introduce innovation in a whole process just because of the complexity of the structures of the company.

Mikołaj: Yes, because someone could say “How can you say that automotive is not innovative?” It is, of course, but different parts of business have different levels of being innovative. For example, if you are designing lights for cars, it’s, of course, innovative, because there used to be simple halogen lights and now we have laser lights and matrix LEDs. So there’s a lot of innovation during some time. However,  when we are talking about, I don’t know, plastics inside the car, there is not a lot of innovation in that field. Of course, we have to be more and more sustainable nowadays so we are searching for sustainable materials that are replacing leather, or any other animal materials. But it takes a lot more time to settle up or to introduce something new because there are a lot of regulations that simply block those initiatives. So something that you could perceive as a failure, sometimes is a system that you have to be in or push forward.

Voytek: But when you work at a huge corporation and you lack the freedom of creative design with failure, it’s not like you need to step up to try and introduce that kind of culture in the whole company! In your team, you should just start to try and make it work in your department.

Mikołaj: Yes, start small, definitely. Bring your failed concepts, failed prototypes and show the people you are working with what you learnt from these things; how your final design was impacted by the things that are broken on the table? You will learn something from each prototype, and you could include this into your final prototype.

Voytek: Like the old school 80s and 90s movies where the characters were showing their scars. “And this happened then, this happened then and this is this happened when I was doing this and that.” That’s how you basically gain experience.

Mikołaj: Yes. And the fun fact that I also have a scar on my head.

Voytek: So, I hope you learned something from that one.

Mikołaj: I learned that I don’t like football at all.

Voytek: Okay. On that note, It’s been an interesting talk. So you should basically incorporate failure in your process in your company. Just make sure it is a learning process and not a waste of resources.

Mikołaj: Yes, treat it as a part of the process and bring innovation to your ideas.

Voytek: Great. Thank you very much.

Mikołaj: Thank you.



Mikołaj Wiewióra is an industrial designer and project manager at Mindsailors, with over 7 years of experience as a designer.









Voytek Holysz is the COO of Mindsailors with 15 years of experience in running a business in creative B2B services, marketing, sales and video production.

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