How Mistakes Can Work to Your Advantage in the Creative Process

by Maria Scileppi 

Designers don’t work in a vacuum. Usually, we collaborate as part of a team or with clients. In order to foster a robust creative process, people need an environment where it is more than OK to make mistakes.

Creativity thrives when we feel safe enough to be vulnerable. Who wants to throw out crazy ideas or try something untested if they feel like they’ll be judged or ridiculed?

No one.

But if we can be open to the “what ifs” and offer fresh ideas—even when they don’t work out—they can still teach us about what will work.

Let Mistakes Fuel Your Creative Fire

It’s all about exploration, iterations, discovery, and uncertainty. We start out creative as children, uninhibited and coloring outside the lines.

But that fearlessness washes out in grade school, where the most important thing is knowing the correct answer right off the bat. This pressure slowly dilutes our beginner’s mindset until we’re uncomfortable with the unknown and afraid to make mistakes.

The truth is that the creative process is a series of mistakes. We’re constantly pivoting and testing ideas. We ask, “What happens if we do this?” We try it, see the result, learn from it, and improve.

Work From the Outside In

When starting any new project, I envision myself at the outer edge of a spiral, conceiving ideas about what a design needs to accomplish. In the early stages of the process, my team and I shoot for a high quantity of ideas, both divergent and convergent.

As we evaluate and refine the best ideas in an ongoing process of iteration, we move closer to the center of the spiral. The design is a solution, but it isn’t binary; it’s a gray area where we make countless decisions that support what we’re solving.

Related: Robin Landa discusses how to mess up—perfectly—and turn your mistakes into successes.

Each choice takes us one step closer to the innermost center of the spiral—in other words, the idea that makes the most sense, solves the problem, resonates with the client, and seems to be the inevitable thing that needs to get made.

4 Ways to Make Good on Your “Mistakes”

Here are a few methods to welcome mistakes during your creative practice and convert them into valuable lessons:

1. Change your thinking about what a mistake is.

If something doesn’t work out, you haven’t failed. You’re still inside the creative process; you’ve simply found a pivot point. It’s only a failure if you haven’t learned from it.

For example, we decided to brew beer as a novel gift for our guest speakers at 72U — and not just any old bottles of beer. These were going to be works of art that represented the values and spirit of 72U. We spent a lot of time coming up with a concept for the bottles, but we never got to work out the design before it was time to implement.

process

We brewed in one area, painted in another, and filmed it all. But the bottles turned out like a sixth-grade splatter paint project. If we’d stopped there, it would’ve been an ugly and expensive mistake.before_beer

Fortunately, one of our team members introduced us to the concept of kintsukuroi: the art of repairing broken pottery by filling in the cracks with gold, celebrating the mistake and calling attention to it. Inspired by this idea, we sanded the bottles down enough so the paint was still visible and stenciled over them. They looked much better, and the beer bottles now had a story!
after_beer

concept

2. Embrace deadlines and other constraints.

Deadlines are the best gift you can give to a creative. Without them, things won’t get done; something else (with a deadline) will take priority. We need that tension to execute.

After we brief a team, it only gets a few days to work on ideas before it has to present them to the group. The longer the team sits with something, the more attached it becomes. The more time and energy a person invests into a project, the harder it is to change it or walk away from it.

Other constraints, such as well-written design briefs, give creatives good jumping-off points. In an attempt to not stifle creativity, I used to give the team a loose brief. I’ve since learned that that’s the equivalent of handing over a blank piece of paper—there’s no place to start and nothing to react to. Creativity needs parameters.

3. Lay ground rules.

We educate our clients on how we approach the process of solving their design challenges. That way, they know what to expect from us upfront. We move quickly, and we’re collaborative.

Things are always shifting, and setbacks are considered part of the process. We let clients know that we’ll set a deadline to force us to stop iterating and that this improves the final result.

4. Trust the journey.

If you set out with a sense of openness, you might think you’re headed one way only to be beautifully interrupted and nudged in a different direction. There’s a balance between staying focused on the goal and letting yourself be open to how you get there. If you aren’t willing to see where another path leads, what discoveries will you miss?

I’ve learned a lot about letting go of expectations. After I define a problem for the team to solve (e.g., make an interactive poster), it’s the team’s job to conceive ideas and execute. I might have ideas about what it could look like, but it’s on the team to explore the best solution with my creative direction. The end result always turns out better when it’s gone through the collaborative process with the team. What’s more, I’ve learned that having high-functioning teammates requires that I trust their craft.

If we’re afraid to make mistakes, we’ll only be capable of doing things we’ve already done. We won’t grow, and our design projects will suffer. To find harmonious, effective design solutions, we can’t afford to be timid learners or skittish about mistakes.

Maria Scileppi is the director of 72U72andSunny’s creative residency program that is designed to take people to the next level, creatively and professionally, in order to cultivate the next generation of brave and generous leaders. Through the program, she explores the intersection of art, technology, culture, and storytelling. Her passion is nurturing talent through project-based learning with an emphasis on collaboration, experimentation, and making things that matter in culture. A defining personal project Maria undertook was making a friend a day for a year.


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