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Rewarding Risk

Learning beyond curriculum.

Failing can be a great teacher, but few sign up for its classes. How can we help learners explore new ideas and extended content, then embrace "setbacks" that often result?




In 2015, I was in my third year as an Assistant Professor in Graphic Design at Miami University. After a few years of teaching, I noticed that students had a hard time taking risks—pushing their design work by trying untried techniques and conceptual directions. So I launched a design research project to learn how students defined risk-taking, and what would most motivate them to try new things in their design work—techniques beyond what I required in class.

About the Project

This project consisted of several steps:

  1. Students in the graphic design program at Miami University will have the opportunity to complete an anonymous, eight question survey where they can share their thoughts on failure, success, and what motivates them to work toward their goals as designers.
  2. Responses to the survey will be analyzed in order to define tendencies and patterns in the data. This will include students’ motivations for their design work and how they perceive the act of taking risks or experimenting with less-proven or difficult techniques, subject matter, or outcomes.
  3. Innovation-focused learning experiences will be developed based on findings from the initial survey. These learning experiences will take the form of assignments and grading criteria that will be tested in one of my graphic design classes. The design of these learning experiences may include giving bonuses for attempts that end in failure, incentivizing risk-taking when developing design solutions, and/or focusing assignment objectives on experimentation, iteration, and process versus only final design outcomes.
  4. Student decisions to experiment/risk or not in their coursework will be recorded reflected by an analysis of their designed outcomes. Feedback will also be requested from participating students in order to determine if and to what degree measures had an effect on their design process.

This curricular development will benefit current and future graphic design students at Miami University and possibly students in other design programs.

Background: Failing is not Failure

Over the past ten years, teachers and researchers have been noticing how the pressure to succeed in school has led to an increase in student anxiety. From my own personal experience, I have heard of students physically harming themselves when these pressures have become too much for them to handle. This pressure has been somewhat common at high school and middle school levels but students at the college and university level are not immune. In some school districts where pressures from parents are especially intense, even children in primary schools are feeling some of these pressures.

Designers tout the iterative process as one of the cornerstones of the design process. However in order to iterate, one must fail at least once (that is, if the first version of a design is not successful, then it is a “failure” and it informs the next revision). A good friend of mine used the phrase “failing is not failure” to capture the value of failing, but that it did not mean the entire endeavor was a total loss.

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Thomas A. Edison

As a creative endeavor that requires many iterative steps in order to develop the most successful outcome possible, design invites failing. But in a culture where “success” is often regarded as the grade of an “A,” the risk-taking and iterative process that is required to create inventive outcomes can be eschewed in lieu of “safer” approaches that would more likely render the letter grade desired. It is my hope that this research may help encourage risk-taking that can help students become innovative problem framers and solvers.

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