‘A fear of failure shouldn't stop D&T students from taking creative risks’

Paul Woodward
29th March 2018 at 16:20

"Most people never ask, and that's what separates, sometimes, the people who do things from the people that just dream about them. You got to act, and you got to be willing to fail. You got to be willing to crash and burn...If you're afraid of failing, you won't get very far!" – Steve Jobs in an interview with the Santa Clara Valley Historical Association in 2011.

Atychiphobia, or a fear of failing, is not uncommon at all. In fact, I am sure everyone has suffered from it at some point even if they wouldn't class it as a phobia. It's perfectly normal to consider that you may fail in something you do – the problems begin when that fear actually deters you from doing what it is you fear; this can often extend into the D&T department.

Given the creative nature of the subject, it's inevitable that you won't always be able to guarantee that a project will be successful and it's that fear of failing that leads some departments to fall back on tried and tested projects and processes. It's a drum that is regularly beaten but you only have to look at the range of 'cigar box' projects, birdhouses and coffee tables that line up for scrutiny each year. Let's forget for a moment that some of these are necessary products and some excellent examples have been produced. What I'm talking about is the production line projects designed to take the least creative risks in order to ensure as many students as possible can achieve a pass or at least their target grade. While this may be the government's vision for education, it's certainly not what attracted me to this subject many years ago.

Just as you need dark to appreciate light, we need failure in order to appreciate success. Failure to keep water in his bath did Archimedes no harm, nor the previous 39 iterations of WD-40. Dyson made a whopping 5,271 prototypes before making a working version of what is now the most popular vacuum cleaner in the world. Bubble Wrap, Post-It Notes, the pacemaker and even modern plastics were all the results of failed products and the list of people who were originally deemed failures includes such famous names as Abraham Lincoln and Steve Jobs.

The thing is, is it actually possible to fail in design? Remember that what students make are simply prototypes as part of an iterative design process. They are very rarely production-ready prototypes and never commercial consumer products. Commercial products, as they are being purchased by consumers, have to perform as expected or sell well to make a profit and failure could be catastrophic, but what we make in the classrooms are simply educational experiments. Any perceived 'failure', be it structural, mechanical or simply that it doesn't look appealing, can be improved through another design iteration or addressed through feedback when evaluated. In short, it's impossible for a classroom-based design project to truly be a failure and the AO's will always credit the student for the 'level of demand' so what you may perceive as a failure when stood next to a nicely crafted but undemanding piece of design, may well be worth more marks.

These relatively early years of education are where we have the luxury of taking creative risks as they can simply feed back into the iterative design process and students can learn from their mistakes. We can teach them to accept failure as part of the journey towards success and instil a love of design and technology through creative experimentation. If you still fear failure, consider that the making of a physical prototype constitutes just 15% of the GCSE award with the rest being addressed through design work or examination. I have seen many a 'failed' project salvaged by a thorough evaluation and suggested modifications. Isn't the chance of producing an excellent piece of design work and igniting the spark of inspiration in a student worth risking just some of that 15%?

Otherwise, what are we aiming to do with design students in our care? Are we simply getting them through a GCSE course to tick boxes and meet floor standards or are we helping them to fulfil their creative potential and inspire them to study further? One option is safe but not necessarily assured while the other is a risk; a fear of the unknown, a fear of failing and it is such creative risks that industry needs and that the AO's are promoting in their new syllabi.

Much like a parent can pass on a fear of spiders to their children, we are in a position where we can pass on our own fear of failure to our students. The political and financial factors that often drive these fears are a discussion for another time but what I do know is that without creative risk takers, we may never see the creative development we have witnessed over the last few centuries. With complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity named as the most important skills for the future workforce, I believe that an understanding of the importance of failure, and more importantly, how to address perceived 'failure' in order to improve will be the key to success in whatever industry our students choose to follow.


Paul has taught and led Design and Technology in a variety of schools as well as working as a musician, artist, freelance designer, examiner, moderator and D&T consultant. Having taken a break from teaching to work in the design industry, he recently returned to education to lead a Creative Arts faculty.