SXSW Interactive 2013

Fools Fear Failure: Designing Better Ways to Fail


Is there something unique about the social sector that leads to an unwillingness to learn from failure?

It's well known that failure is sticky; people learn better from stories of failure than they do from success stories. Yet, in the social sector, failure is rarely discussed. Instead of treating projects and ideas that failed before us as a massive repository of R+D knowledge, these invaluable stories are often never told or actively swept under the carpet.

As human-centered designers, we fail often and quickly as part of the design process. We also excel at telling stories in a manner that is convincing to clients and customers. This panel asks: how might we use our skills as designers to create a new mindset in the social sector that says "I failed and here's the story of how it happened"?

Moderated by the Knowledge Manager from, this panel brings together
designers, master storytellers, and veterans of many a social sector failure to explore this topic.

Additional Supporting Materials


  1. Is there something unique about the social sector that leads to an unwillingness to learn from failure? A saying in the social sector is that we often present our smiling faces to our donors and our asses to the people we're supposed to be helping. As a result, the stories we're telling are generally overly rosy and often ignore on-the-ground failure altogether. How might we pivot away from this mindset or is it impossible given the funding structure of the social sector?
  2. How might we tell an effective failure story so that others can learn from it? Are there similar themes in stories of failure from around the world? How might we flesh out these themes and encourage potential storytellers to focus on these aspects of their stories when documenting the failure process?
  3. How might we encourage people to make and learn from small failures to avoid failing in much bigger ways? This is a methodology that we use as part of the human-centered design process (ie: prototyping, sacrificial concepts). How can we apply this same process to the social sector more generally, not only because resources are scarce in the social sector, but because failures in this sector have so much more impact?
  4. How do we define "failure"? How might we go about redefining the term to encourage people to actually document their failures?
  5. At what point in the failure lifecycle are people in a position to actually talk about their failure? How do we target these points in time and incentivize people to tell their story?



Sean Hewens, Knowledge Manager + In-House Counsel,

Meta Information:

  • Tags: design, storytelling
  • Event: Interactive
  • Format: Panel
  • Track: Design and Development
  • Track 2
  • Level: Beginning

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