“A beautiful failure in which the reach exceeds the grasp.”
-Keith Krumwiede, Associate Professor of Architecture in the College of Architecture and Design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology

DesignX1The Harvard×Design Conference, the annual exploration of all things design, centered its 2016 conference on the process of productive failure. “Failure×Design,” held on Saturday, February 20th, is the only cross-school collaborative effort of its kind, joining student groups at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), Harvard Business School (HBS), and Harvard College. The fifth annual conference assembled students from over 30 universities and design professionals for an honest discussion about the role of failure in design, the many forms of failure, and the constructive, countless ways to overcome it.

The GSD Harvard×Design Club expanded its role for the 2016 Conference by leading the planning of this ambitious conference, with the two GSD students serving as the Conference Co-Chairs—Carly Dickson MArch ’17 and Enoch Wong MArch ’17. By leveraging the expertise within the University, the HarvardxDesign Club aims to provide the greater Harvard community with a platform for cross-disciplinary conversations in design. Through expanding their access to the networks from students and faculty of the GSD, HBS, and Harvard College, members found that they accomplish more together than apart. The conference was sponsored in part by a generous gift from Mr. J.W. Kaempfer, Jr. MBA ’71, which is devoted to collaboration between GSD and HBS for entrepreneurial activities that may produce breakthrough communications between the design field and the world of commerce.

We hoped that the theme of failure would encourage our speakers to touch on their own personal trajectories and the obstacles they overcame, and we were thrilled to hear the incredible stories they told.

Harvard×Design aspired for the failure theme to move beyond a focus on a specific company or industry. This goal was realized through the candor and inspiration generated by the speakers. According to Dickson and Wong, “We hoped that the theme of failure would encourage our speakers to touch on their own personal trajectories and the obstacles they overcame, and we were thrilled to hear the incredible stories they told. Additionally, we wanted to learn how they encounter failure in their daily design process in a real way, rather than just the trendy buzzword related ‘fail fast’ slogans.”

DesignX2An extensive and diverse speaker lineup was purposefully developed to be relevant to participants from all backgrounds including business, design, health, and technology. Opening remarks were given by Natasha Jen, an award-winning designer and the youngest partner at Pentagram (who also designed the visual identity for the event). The flexibility that Dickson and Wong offered the speakers to engage with the topic of failure generated powerful and meaningful engagement. Jenny Kutnow, art director of global brand design at Etsy proclaimed “I’m more interested in the world than I am in design…design is relational.” Albert Lee, NEA’s designer-in-residence, whose accomplished career also includes Gehry Partners, 2×4, and IDEO, made the point to differentiate the work that you can do, and the work that you are meant to do. His advice on figuring out this contrast: “do” a lot. His invitation for Natasha Jen to return to center stage led to an unscripted, poignant conversation (photo on left). Dynamic moments like this underscored Dickson and Wong’s thoughtful approach to selecting speakers.

Teman Evans MArch ’04, director of global brand design DesignX3strategy and retail innovation and Teran Evan MArch ’04, design director of global brand experience, both at PepsiCo, have strong ties to the GSD including serving as GSD Alumni Council members and teaching the fall 2015 class Paper or Plastic: Reinventing Shelf-life in the Supermarket Landscape. During Failure×Design, the Evans brothers utilized the topic of beautiful failure to walk through the failures and adversity they overcame throughout their career trajectory, which ultimately led them to their roles at PepsiCo.

The experience of planning and executing the conference enabled Dickson and Wong to view failures they experienced at the GSD, especially those during the MArch I core sequence, in a different light. As they explained, “While in hindsight we have come to view these as productive failures, at the time it was associated with so much fear of underperformance that we didn’t allow ourselves to divorce our fear of failure from our creative process. Now, and especially after the conference, we are more able to embrace our failures which, as Natasha Jen said, are the birth of invention and reinvention.”

From the momentum generated, Harvard×Design plans to engage with local professionals who are working in non-traditional career paths. As more and more students are becoming aware of their own mobility within the design industry, they are working to formalize some of those opportunities within the GSD.

If you are interested in learning more about Harvard×Design, please contact Carly Dickson and Enoch Wong via this link.


Photo Credit: Lance Katigbak, College Springboard Design Club Co-Chair