Home > Uncategorized > Webstock 2013 – Aza Raskin: “Embrace failure and fail forward”

Webstock 2013 – Aza Raskin: “Embrace failure and fail forward”

“The problem is, we don’t understand the problem”

Aza Raskin Webstock Flickr 2013

Aza Raskin at Webstock 2013 (Image from Webstock 2013 Flickr stream)

Former creative head for Firefox and named one of the world’s top 40 designers by Fast Company, Aza Raskin, turns design issues inside out. His programme notes from Webstock claim: “It’s not about thinking outside the box. It’s about finding the right box to think inside. The power of constraints is learning to choose the right problem.”

To make his point he uses the story of  US mechanical engineer Paul MacCready who was the designer of the first human-powered aircraft. MacCready was the eventual winner of a competition set up in 1959 by a British industry magnate, Henry Kremer, who waged £50,000 to anyone who could make a human-powered aircraft. He also offered £100,000 for a successful crossing of the English Channel in such an aircraft. Almost two decades later the prize money was still with Kremer and the wreckages of failed attempts lay abandoned in hangars and garages.

MacCready took up the challenge. As Raskin retells: “He came to the startling realization that people were solving the wrong problem. ‘The problem is,’ he said, ‘that we don’t understand the problem’.”

His insight was that innovators would spend up to a year creating an aircraft based on theory and design, without empirical tests, which would then crash on first flight. Or the pilot would ditch the plane exhausted. The team would then take the learning and go back to the drawing board and wheel out another version a year or so later. MacCready’s Satori-like moment was that they were all solving the wrong problem.

Says Raskin: “He came up with a new problem that he set out to solve: how can you build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours not months.”

Being able to iterate a new version in hours, not months, meant MacCready and team had innovated the design process to a point where six months later, in 1978, his Gossamer Condor flew 2.1km and took the Kremer prize. A year later – 20 years after Kremer set the challenge –  his Gossamer Albatross crossed the Channel.

For Raskin, MacCready’s genius was that he embraced failure and “failed forward” and created a great design because of the necessary constraints, rather than despite them.

“It’s not about thinking outside the box it’s about finding the right box to think inside”, says Raskin. He cites Japanese Haiku; Monet’s constraint of hues; InstagramSnap Chat and the Polish architect who designed a one-metre-wide house between two other buildings as further examples of the genius idea born of strict parameters.

He offers research that has shown thinking there’s an obstacle actually makes humans think more laterally by forcing us out of habitual, safe thinking. Apparently it’s even been proven that a detour on the journey home leads to a greater likelihood of the commuter changing what they will have for dinner that night.

“In problem solving or design, the part where you should spend the most time is at the start rather than on the solution.”

For Raskin constraints are just focused obstacles
1. That preclude reliable already recognised answers
2. That promote novel ones
3. That help you fail forward

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