Fail like a designer

Our image of the world is built on assumptions and schemas. Without them, our everyday life would feel chaotic and quite burdensome. However, in an innovation process, our assumptions mainly work against us. They keep us from thinking outside the box. You could even say that assumption is the mother of all screw-ups 

Without intentionally reflecting on our thinking patterns, they will act like the shining exit signs that show us the closest way out from whatever maze or task it is we are working on. Our brains are saying, “look, the exit is just here, take it. It is safe, and you’ll be out in no time!” The rest of the maze remains unexplored, but at least we survive.  

Get out of the box 

The first insight or idea is likely to be obvious one, not innovative nor original, as we learned in Katja Tschimmel’s master class course. To be able to truly innovate, it is necessary to step out to the un-known and out of the comfort zone with curious mind.  By Design Thinking processes, we become more aware of our assumptions and intentionally move them aside, becoming brave and curious explorers and resolvers of the latent needs of people, needs that even the people themselves struggle putting into words. 

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Design Thinking is like being balancing on a tightrope where on the other side is the chance of failure and on other side the chance for innovation. Our own assumptions and uncertainty of success will push us towards failure, while curiosity, trust and empathy will give us a good nudge towards innovation. 

Big emotions at stake 
Fear towards failure in the efforts to innovate is human. Failing just is uncomfortable. Emotions overall are an inseparable part of our humanity, and they strongly affect our actions. The possibility of feeling shame makes it less tempting to be vulnerable and represent our rough and preliminary ideas to the audience without carefully fine-tuning and polishing them first.  

As designers, it is a necessity to consciously train our ability to handle failure. Accepting failing as an essential, positive part of innovation process is something us as becoming designers will have to learn to do. Besides professional growth, becoming a service designer is therefore also a matter of personal growth.  

No fail, no gain 

In Design Thinking, there is no other way to innovation besides the try and error cycle. In fact, in Design Thinking failure is not seen as failure, but as an essential part of the process towards something innovative.  
Tom and David Kelley state in their book Creative Confidence (2013:41): “In fact, early failure can be crucial to success in innovation. Because the faster you find weaknesses during an innovation cycle, the faster you can improve what needs fixing.”  

The more failures we get, the more possible improvements become tangible, if we just are able to analyze them carefully. Every (mis)step is a step forward, even if it sometimes might feel like a step backward. 

It’s all about the people 

Design Thinking is human-centric by nature. The true needs, perspectives and feelings of other individuals and groups become concrete and tangible only when we address empathy. This requires us to take the leap out of our comfort zone and interact with people.  
According to Kelley brothers, Michael Schrage wrote in his famous book Serious play: “Innovation is always more social than personal”.  

Could we even argue that innovation is always something that will somehow serve others?  

Written by Taika Rantanen and Nora Rahnasto. 

References and links 

Brown, Tim (2008) Design Thinking. Harvard Business Review, June, 84-95. 

Kelley, D. & Kelley, T. (2013) Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All. Crown Business. (  

Kolko, J. (2015) Design thinking comes of age. The approach, once used primarily in product design, is now infusing corporate culture. Harvard Business Review September 2015, 66-71. (

Tschimmel, Katja (2020). Design Thinking course lectures, September 4–5 2020. Laurea University of Applied Sciences. Espoo, Finland.   

Tschimmel, Katja (2018). Evolution 6² Toolkit: An E-handbook for Practical Design Thinking for Innovation. Mindshake.   

4 thoughts on “Fail like a designer

  1. Dear Taika and Nora,

    Great blog post and wonderful encouragement to fail during the process of creating. Indeed, people tend to feel the fear of failure and rejection not only in working, but also personal life. Suggesting ideas, trying new methods, taking that “all or nothing” risk by implementing extravagant project instead of doing it on average level have always given me that fear of rejection that we, humans, naturally own.

    Although, I find it much enjoyable to fail inside the comfort zone. What I mean by that – a supporting community where people ask curious questions instead of judging, people who are truly open-hearted to perceive something out of this world.

    I find our class exactly this kind of community. While training to fail together we will become stronger and more confident creative thinkers. Moreover, we will have courage to accept and support others’ failures.

    Kindest wishes,

  2. Thanks for your interesting and coherent blog post! For this assignment I didn’t read any article or book related to this topic so your title really caught my eye.

    For me failing in something has always been one of my biggest fears. I believe I’m not the only one who remembers more easily failures than successes from his/hers past 😀 However, Design Thinking comes to help me and the others.

    I like the way you described Design Thinking to be like balancing on a tightrope where on the other side is the chance of failure and on other side the chance for innovation. Nothing new happens if the risk is not taken. One must embrace curiosity, trust and empathy to get nudged towards innovation.

    In addition I love Kate’s idea (the first comment) of our class being a kind of community where training to fail together makes us stronger and more confident creative thinkers. Can’t wait to fail in front of you, and with you 😉

  3. I like that you brought up the theme of falling in love with your first idea. Guilty as charged in many cases. Personally for me this was one of the most important lessons from the class and something that I need to work on consciously in the future.
    Failing is a great example of something very uncomfortable. By implementing Design Thinking processes failing becomes a natural part of the process and is not seen as failing anymore but a value adding step. As Ekaterina mentioned in the comments, people find it much more enjoyable to “fail” inside a safe environment.

  4. I’ve seen this fear of failing in the organisation of almost all the clients I’ve had. Often, especially in large companies, abundance and the need to protect existing business is at the core of the problem. It leads to slow decision-making, complacency, and the incentive to fine-tune everything just little more, then a little more, before you test or launch and get that first, sorely-needed, reality check. Being risk-averse and afraid to fail — as most traditional companies are — paradoxically leads to the risk of failure spiralling upwards, as time goes by without real testing with users or in the market.

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