A Vocabulary for Failure

In “Among Six Types Of Failure, Only A Few Help You Innovate”, designer Jamer Hunt reacts to a trend he sees in the otherwise positive movement of embracing failure and lays out an intriguing vocabulary for different project failures.

He opens with his thoughts on the recent development of a culture surrounding and celebrating failure (mixing in a fair amount of his social and political perspective — not quoted here):

Fail early and fail often… Borrowed from the world of computer programming, it expresses the urgency of getting iterations out into the world early in the process so that they can be tested, debugged, redesigned, and refined. The sooner in the process one does it, the more likely one can bake meaningful adjustments into the final product…

But I’m puzzled of late by how effortlessly the word “failure” has slipped into the design lexicon, and I’ve been wondering what the unintended effects of this warm, welcoming embrace of failure might portend. Over and over, I hear designers and design educators gleefully bandy the word around. Failfaires are even popping up in cities across the country to provide a forum for failures…

…what concerns me is that in this counterintuitive embrace of failure we may be conflating different kinds of failure, and doing so at some risk.

Ultimately, Hunt develops a useful set of failure modalities:

  1. Abject failure
  2. Structural failure
  3. Glorious failure
  4. Common failure
  5. Version failure
  6. Predicted failure

Click through to the original post for a pithy explanation and example of each.

About this categorization of failures, Hunt ends with this:

With this extended vocabulary, we may now be able to recognize that there are valuable kinds of failure that are essential to innovation processes (version and predicted), while acknowledging that there are other types of failures that do little good. The old adage is correct: We do learn from failure. And there’s no question that out of failure — even abject failure — we emerge transformed in ways that may ultimately be beneficial. But that does not mean that all failures deserve a trophy.