Shaking Failure Off
A design lesson taken—time and time again—from the game of baseball
Design insights are found when least expected, often rising from fields and activities far away from the craft itself—a morning stroll, a binge-watching marathon, a great passage in a short story. Sometimes, design lessons stream in over time by simply watching baseball games unfold.
Baseball’s structure and tempo have often made me think about design a little bit differently; the game’s cadence and the length of its seasons influencing my perception of the design process. Notably, it is during the rougher patches that this connection feels more concrete. When ideas don’t quite flow, or when the days get a little too long, it helps me to think of aspects of this game to reframe certain unavoidable elements of the process of design.
My life-long devotion to baseball started with the sweet, fluid arc of Will Clark’s swing. I have no specific recollection of any particular game or at-bat where this motion was brought to my attention, but I do have a clear sense of when this affection began: the 1989 Bay Bridge World Series.
At the time, my family lived in San Luis Potosí, México. I didn’t totally understand baseball. I just liked the look of it, the long pauses, the bursts of action that came whenever the ball was struck. I spoke no English, and I only vaguely grasped the nuances of everything that went on, but I was hooked. Soon, I was begging my parents for baseball gloves and bringing in bats and balls into my sixth-grade schoolyard to play some ball during recess.
As luck—and life—would have it, my parents would plan to move our family to the United States merely months after that Series ended. We would be moving to San Francisco, to be precise. I received the news with mixed emotions, but at least on the baseball front, I was thrilled to get to live in the same city that “Will the Thrill” also called home. My infatuation would grow exponentially; a Will Clark poster soon hung in my room, I started emulating his swing in family trips to the park, I mimicked his scowl when walking to school, when brushing my teeth.
This obsession eventually led to a Baseball Card collecting habit, one which still lurks underneath, as evidenced by a binder full of extant cards still stuffed in a binder somewhere in my basement. These cards became a big deal for me; the numbers laid out in the back became a comforting language, one I could actually read, one I could grasp. Those stat lines helped get me through the seismic social and cultural shift around me; they were simple, decipherable, clear. They became a safe base I could lean on as my new life blurred past me.
I pored over some of the facts and figures of that 1989 season, and, like going back to your childhood home, everything felt smaller and less imposing when revisited. Questions arose. One figure stood out, glaring back at me from the back of those cards: Will Clark, 1B, 1989 Batting Average: .333. This man was my hero, the guy whose poster hovered over my bed, yet he only succeeded once in every three tries? This was scandalous. Getting a 33% in a test, after all, would be horrifying to my parents. Why was this considered good? What was I missing? Was this something else I was losing in translation?
Seasons progressed, and perspectives matured. Giants’ seasons, both good and bad, came and went. I went through high school and then college and then life in general. Will Clark left the Giants to go play in Texas, then Baltimore, then St. Louis. By the time he retired in 2000, he had been through a battery of injuries and was never quite the same player again.
That same year, I entered my senior year in design school. I continued to stay connected to the sport as much as possible, but, of course, a college course load makes that problematic. Still, I couldn’t help notice a parallel between those baseball card numbers and the work I was trying to accomplish. Design projects in college just felt different; they required more failed attempts than I was used to. It seemed that the number of wrong answers was much higher and much more concrete, more visible. If you erred on an Algebra test answer in high school, you would do so once and swiftly move on to the next problem. In design school, though, you could fail multiple times trying to solve the same problem, and you could see your failures. They were tenfold and present, and they stayed within sight.
In my first typography class, my attempts at completing an assignment led to many files littered with abandoned debris and bunches of faded inkjet prints in the bin. In another class, I remember going through 50–60 pencil sketches before I got a halfway decent solution for a poster. In yet another project, I got to experience what it feels like to re-do an assignment four times before feeling I could submit it, before getting it right.
Mired in these pages of stillborn sketches and cluttered working files, I thought about that .333 average that Will Clark posted. By this time, I had come to appreciate the difficulty of hitting — considered to be arguably the most difficult act in all of sports — and understood why that number was, in fact, quite good. In the context of design school, however, it became a downright ambitious figure, certainly no longer the shame-worthy production of a bad student getting 1 out of 3 answers right on a biology test. It was now more real, much more aligned with the ratios of a design process that is ruthlessly unsentimental about the number of bad ideas you need to churn through to get to one that clears the fence.
As my career has evolved, this correlation has become much more pronounced. For any given project — say, an identity — I’ll go through about 20–40 pencil sketches on my sketchbook. Many are quickly thrown out, but about 10–20 make it to the computer, and about 2–4 get presented. For any identity I manage to get through to approval, at least 19 others need to be mocked up and put away. That’s a respectable .250 average for ideas that make it to a client presentation, but a nice, crisp .050 for anything I decide to pursue after the rough sketch phase. That .333 number acquires GOAT status up against those standards.
Other kinds of design projects have different baselines—you generally don’t need to generate as many distinct starting points on a website project or a wayfinding system— but the comparison resurfaces when thinking about what goes into a design portfolio. The numbers get smaller. I have not precisely sat down to calculate this, but loosely speaking, only about 10–15% of every project I’ve ever worked on lives on in my portfolio. I’ve been working for twenty years now, which makes the amount of work I’ve done and thrown out mostly immeasurable. There is no Baseball-Reference for Designers to document the stats of our efforts, but a similar breakdown might be true of most of us once you get deep enough in the game.
Failures and losses abound. Our design heroes don’t post these losses anywhere, so it’s easy for young designers to get intimidated by the flawless portfolios of designers in the upper echelon — the “big leagues,” if you will. Design presentations gone wrong are seldom recorded; work meeting slip-ups do not end up on YouTube. A breathtaking portfolio can come across as a sign that there are designers out there that make no mistakes, that hitting everything out of the park is somehow normal. But design portfolios are highlight reels, the consolidated record of the very best moments in a career. They have the luxury of editing. They are not required to show what begs to be omitted. For baseball players, all game-time errors are recorded and streamed; denial of mistakes is not an option. Likewise, designers must learn to adapt to failure, to accept its sheer existence, to know it is there even if it remains hidden when we peruse the body of work of our peers and influences.
In a lecture I give every year to one of my classes, I share a video from the late great Milton Glaser where he elaborates on the idea of embracing failure. I love this lecture, and I love sharing it. I share it so I can watch it again myself, over and over again. Here is one of the great designers of our time, staring right at the camera, asking you to give in, to accept the fact that most of what you will do will not work. You will strike out sometimes, and some of those losses may be painful for a long time. But it’s just how the game works. You take a swing and hope to connect. If you miss, you do the whole thing again next time. And the time after that.
So, yes, I think about baseball a lot when working, and I find some of the parallels soothing. (It helps that there are seasons like this one that end up being somewhat magical). Baseball resembles the business of design a lot in its pace. During the season, baseball is played every single day — injuries and strategic decisions notwithstanding. Some days, everything falls into place; others, you just don’t see things clearly, but you need to show up anyway, groggy moods be damned. This out-and-out exposure—the mere quantity of attempts—inevitably reveals all unsuccessful tries.
Another parallel is the concept of pitch selection. The idea is simple: can you learn to focus on the pitches you can work with and have the discipline to lay off all others? It’s a notion that transcends baseball, and for a designer, the benefits are layered. Can you become better at selecting what ideas you might execute effectively? When talking to potential clients, can you identify which will net better outcomes?
Early in your career, you will tend to say Yes to everything — essentially, you will swing at every pitch. You almost have to. But, just as a baseball player develops skills over many years, a designer can get to know their areas of competence over time. You get to know your zone, and you get to know your own swing. You get better and better and finding the situations in which you are most likely to find success. You get better at mitigating—albeit never entirely eliminating—the impacts of failure.
Baseball is a game that is wholly comfortable acknowledging the existence of errors, a game that exposes shortcomings on a daily basis. Tim Flannery, the longtime third base coach for the Giants, reportedly had a saying: “There are two kinds of players in baseball: those who have been humbled and those who are about to be.” I’ve found that it helps me think about this when thinking of my own work, of my failed attempts and wayward explorations. It’s reassuring to picture unsuccessful tries as a mere by-product of this line of work, an inevitable accumulation of inanimate numbers in the back of an imaginary “Designer Trading Card” stashed away in a basement somewhere.
In The Rise, Sarah Lewis writes: “When we surrender to the fact of death not the idea of it, we gain license to live more fully.” How might we adapt this to accept the errors inherent in the design processes? Can we surrender to the fact of failure and not be haunted by the idea of it? Can we be more like the ballplayer that accepts the low percentages of his craft and charges on nonetheless, each and every day?
The Giants will retire Will Clark’s #22 Jersey sometime next year. There’ll be nostalgic video tributes and standing ovations, countless replays of that graceful swing, its eternal upward motion; Clark’s left arm suspended in mid-air after his follow-through, his right hand loosening the grip, a slight pause as his glare follows the path of the ball, a cheer erupting in the background. I’ll be there, too, to cheer for the man and the sport that made me understand, slowly and over time, that the misses are just as inexorable as the hits; that a certain amount of failure is a non-negotiable aspect of any worthwhile achievement.