A Wake for Failed Design


Grief is on my mind. A thunder of mass shootings again sobered the nation to dovetail the death of a relative this weekend, so that just about everybody I know — for one reason or another — was feeling glum. If you’re interested you can read on twitter my guesswork about how Stoics might respond to a mass shooting, but for Stoic Designer I thought I’d adapt griefthink to designs, projects, or experiments that go wrong, have had their time, and slip the cable.

In agile, at the end of a sprint we perform a retrospective. When shit goes wrong, we call it a post-mortem. This term — Latin for after death — is lifted from detective-work that refers to the examination of a dead body to determine the cause of death. In design and development work, teams who headscratch together after an incident (like, deleting then having to restore entire mailing lists) are there then performing a post-mortem to understand more acutely what happened and — more importantly — why.

It is one of the many death rituals designers use to assuage the pain of negative feedback, poor metrics, poor management, and the like, although too few are Wednesday-Addams enough to go full goth with it.

But Stoicism uses memento mori not like Hot Topic mallrats but as a purely practical reminder that - yo, time is short, get on with whatever’s important.

In fact, grief to the likes of Seneca was an opportunity to practice gratitude.

Has it then all been for nothing that you have had such a friend? During so many years, amid such close associations, after such intimate communion of personal interests, has nothing been accomplished? Do you bury friendship along with a friend? And why lament having lost him, if it be of no avail to have possessed him? Believe me, a great part of those we have loved, though chance has removed their persons, still abides with us. The past is ours, and there is nothing more secure for us than that which has been.

Find that deep sense of gratitude for the opportunity. Practicing the lessons learned from that person is the way in which that person lives on.

This is how we should see failed designs, dead products, bogus experiments, wireframes red-penned and thrown in the trash. How is it that we are better for them?

Craft virtuously.

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Remember that design is not art, but a practice,

Michael Schofield