Rescuing Design Mistakes: How to Turn Oops Into Oomph

A shattered lemon tart shows how to turn oops into oomph

Taking risks sometimes results in mistakes, but those mistakes can often be converted into works of art.

Making the most of our mistakes can become a potent tool for creativity. Italian chef Massimo Bottura cleverly demonstrates the power of milking mistakes in Netflix’s “Chef’s Table” series released last month.

A few years ago at Bottura’s Osteria Francescana restaurant, his pastry chef adroitly prepared two lemon tarts, the eatery’s signature dessert. But before those tarts could make it to the dining room, one dropped on the kitchen counter and burst open. Bottura stared at the mess for a few seconds. Then, rather than ranting and raving, he smiled and shouted, “It’s so beautiful!”

Grabbing a clean dish, Bottura splattered the tart’s bright yellow filling across the plate’s surface Pollock-style and carefully arranged pieces of broken crust to create artwork. He then took the other tart, cracked it open and made a second dessert to match. He titled the reinvented dish, “Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart.”

massimo bottura lemon tart

Oops! I Dropped the Lemon Tart! — Image via Epicurious

As Bottura’s clever save shows, mistakes deserve our attention — and our imagination. Every book and lecture on creativity includes the admonition to take risks. But what must also be emphasized is that risk-taking sometimes results in mistakes — and that rescuing those mistakes is an integral part of the process. Otherwise, mistakes suck up creative energy and eventually evolve into disasters.

Atul Gawande, a prominent surgeon and medical writer, has studied the high price of neglected mistakes and stresses the need to salvage them. “A failure often does not have to be a failure at all,” he says. “However, you have to take steps to set things right. Because the difference between triumph and defeat often isn’t about willingness to take risks. It’s about mastery of rescue.”

Recognize mistakes as soon as they happen and make speedy recoveries, advises John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer. His famous animation studio has the mantra of “be wrong as fast as you can,” Lasseter told interviewer Charlie Rose. Pixar designers and writers try to spot mistakes fast and make revisions — or let the mistakes catapult them toward even better ideas — before scripts reach the expensive stages of final animation.

Three quick tips:

1. Take risks for creativity’s sake.

No creativity comes from playing it safe. Virgin’s Richard Branson relishes risk-taking and often says, “The brave may not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all.”

2. Quickly spot and admit mistakes.

Know that risk-taking means mistakes will sometimes happen. Rather than dwelling on those mistakes, rapidly acknowledge and learn from them.

3. Move into rescue mode.

Put the brake on mistakes before they become dismal failures. Fix them, modify them — or, better yet, use them as happy accidents to create imaginative new solutions.

Sam Harrison is a popular speaker and author on creativity- related topics and presentation skills. His books include IdeaSpotting: How to find your next great idea, IdeaSelling: Successfully pitch your creative ideas to bosses, clients and other decision makers and Zing!: Five steps and 101 tips for creativity on command. Find him at