News is in that “Erasers are an ‘instrument of the devil’ which should be banned”. Cognitive scientist Guy Claxton says erasers should be banned from classrooms, on the basis that masking mistakes is the wrong way to learn: that you “…didn’t make a mistake. (You) got it right first time.” stunts opportunities for creative discovery, the really valuable lessons and even better learning.

In praise of making mistakes then, there’s no shortage of champions across industry encouraging us to ‘fail faster‘ and more often. In design, especially, it’s often ‘seen’ or cited as a critical faculty.

But is it true, that we really do value error over success? Are there awards for mistakes in business? Where is the £250 for your video clip on the business equivalent of ‘You’ve Been Framed’? I’d struggle to think of many. There’s the Museum of Failed Products but industry, it seems, prefers to celebrate success – and we’re all guilty of buffing our credentials and reflecting on the gloss of positive results.

Clearly there are times when ‘not right’ is simply wrong. Sometimes laughably, sometimes dangerously.

When we’re in work, we’re judged – and we judge ourselves – by the achievement not the shortcoming (unless you’re lucky to be a serial entrepreneur, where it appears failing is part of the success. Or at least it is if you can walk away, which is perhaps part of the answer to how it seems possible to win by losing…).

So back to this contrast between how we teach while in ‘formal’ education and Guy’s argument against that – that wrong isn’t right versus that wrong is sometimes the best way to learn, and how that helps prepare people for work. Why does the praise for ‘failure’ in industry (which seems to be Guy’s position) seem so at odds with the day-to-day reality of making sure we get everything right (as the way we are ‘taught’)? After all, you go home at the end of the day thinking, ‘wow, I’m glad I screwed that up today’ don’t you?

So is it education or industry that has the answer: which of either two standpoints is the ‘right’ answer: and if it isn’t just right, is that wrong?

Tibor Kalman noted that what he looked for were things that looked ”wrong just right”. That the way of setting something down (in this case, as design solutions to his client’s problems) needed to be just off-kilter to make us look twice. To make it memorable. To make it distinct, if not exactly ‘unique’ (that’s a much tougher call).

Yes, sometimes there are answers that don’t appear to be right, but it often transpires that they aren’t bad answers.

Perhaps they’re not the answers you expected, but that doesn’t make them wrong. Often those kind of answers help us ask a better question. Which is perhaps what we should be aiming for – more ways of seeing how things could be rather than being so certain that this is how they should. I just think there’s just as much value in possibilities, as principles.

Here’s Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas’ work.

It’s an imperfect world that needs lots of answers, not fewer.

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About Richard Hill

Creative director, writer, designer, illustrator based in the UK with global project experience and consulting skills across sectors.

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Design, Experiences, Ideas for business, Re-thinking, strategy

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