My Favorite Failure

A large-scale vinyl installation falling off a wall in a Frank Gehry-designed building
Perhaps my biggest project failure of 2021 (and in a Frank Gehry-designed building no less)

We so rarely talk about or admit to project failures, or if we do, it’s often in the abstract. The above photo encompasses a literal project failure from the latter part of 2021. What you can’t see in the photo is the beautiful artwork from illustrator Diana Ejaita that we collaborated on earlier in the year. But I digress…

This was from a pilot of a new (for Open Arts) approach to present designers’ work in physical spaces. What’s impossible to show here is that the processes and systems I had worked meticulously on for some time went perfectly all the way through the installation itself. Everything was great until it wasn’t. And this was far from my first rodeo with these processes.

But as the cliché goes, within every failure, there is opportunity.

In this case, the question was: what happened? What caused the failure? Was it the material? Was it something to do with the paint or wall finish? Was it related to an environmental factor since the building was not operating under normal conditions? Perhaps some combination of the above?

After taking a beat and experimenting somewhat scientifically with material brands and process variations, we uncovered that the failure was almost certainly a material issue. Our suspicion was that the material delivered used a low-tack adhesive meant for temporary installs — not what we had specified for the project.

Although we accumulated valuable knowledge throughout this failure, the real lesson was ultimately about how people respond in these situations.

We had two options: play the blame game (spoiler: no one really comes out a winner), or pull up our pants and do the work to understand what happened thoughtfully and with kindness. Obviously, we chose the second option.

Truthfully, I prefer the second attempt. Despite the initial failure, it set up a consistent string of successes that followed and allowed this new program to rapidly scale up in terms of physical size and geographical reach.