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Paula Scher on Failure

Paula Scher on failure.
Jay Dixit
This post is a response to The Failure Interview Series by Jay Dixit

Paula Scher is one of the world's most famous graphic designers, known for creating Citibank's umbrella logo as well as for design work for The Public Theater, The New York Times Magazine, the American Museum of Natural History, The New York City Ballet, and Herman Miller. She believes failure is the secret to artistic success. "You have to fail in order to make the next discovery," says Scher. "It's through mistakes that you actually can grow."

You have a whole philosophy about recovering from failure—how you can learn from failure and how it can actually help you. You've spoken about how failures and mistakes in your own work led to your current level of success and allowed you to be creative.

There are two different ways this thing works. I did a TED talk about the difference between serious work and solemn work. I define serious work as being where you make breakthroughs, and solemn work as doing the status quo and the level may be very good but it's not breakthrough.

There's another factor—and I'm talking about this as a designer, but I imagine it would work in any form of the arts and to science. When you're working and you make mistakes, particularly when you're young, you make discoveries because you do things that are inappropriate and wrongheaded, but within the wrongheadedness you find an unexpected way to go. These things are truly the breakthroughs.

When you're fulfilling a function—when you're being obedient, in other words, you're doing as expected—you can't learn anything. Because you already know the answer. It's through mistakes that you actually can grow.

You have to get bad in order to get good. You have to try a lot of things and fail in order to make the next discovery.

That works in a short-term methodology when you're just working on a specific project, but also long-term in terms of a whole career. I find I make big discoveries and I make huge leaps and then I repeat myself and I'll be known for what I did—I'll get the acclaim for the breakthrough—and that elevates everyone's expectation of who I am and what I'm supposed to do, and I will repeat that because it has become successful.

And I will repeat it and repeat it until it provokes my utter failure because I'm going along doing exactly what I did. And it's very hard to make the breakthrough because in order to make the breakthrough again, to go up again, you either have to fail or be unqualified for a job where you don't know what you're doing, where you make honest mistakes because that's how you learn. And that success is its own guarantee of failure.

So you're saying that one of the ways that you experience failure is: Let's say you make a breakthrough and you're rewarded for it—by people praising it—and you repeat that same formula that worked for you and it gets stale after a while, and eventually that lack of innovation becomes regarded as a failure?

That's right. In my TED talk, there's actually a little cycle about it. It's first being serious—that's how you make the breakthrough—then being solemn (that's when the breakthrough is expected), then being trite or hackneyed, and then being forgotten and then getting resurrected again. You go through that entire cycle, and the failure leads to the next reinvention—as long as you understand what's happening to you. Some people grasp on some to try to repeat the old success. They feel, "Well, oh, I'm just not doing the old thing I did well," and in fact you have to let go of that for a while and free fall and find the next thing.

What do you do in order to understand what's happening to you and try not to grasp on to the old success?

That's the "aha" part of it. The really hard part is to let go of yourself. You have to have the self-awareness that it's happening, and you can't be defensive and protect yourself. Like I find, the minute I see young kids doing something I really, really hate, I know I have to pay attention to them. Because I realize I really, really hate it because I'm defending myself.

Can you give an example of that?

I've been through so many styles and trends that have been like that. That's your first reaction when you see something new that you aren't part of. It's a generational shift. I'm 60, I've been through this a lot. You never can do what the kids do. What you do is look at yourself and find your own way to address the fact that the times have changed and that you have to pay attention. You can't be a designer and say, "Oh, this is timeless." Nothing is timeless! Times change. The minute you say, "This is some fashion phase, I'm going to ignore this, because my work is timeless," pay attention—you're fooling yourself! What young designers do is they rebel against what came before them—meaning they're rebelling against you. That's what allows them to discover the next thing.

They need that to propel them forward. So when they rebel and they rebel against you, that hurts your feelings. You feel threatened by it. When you feel threatened by it, you tend to denounce it. "Oh, these young kids today, they're doing this terrible crap yada yada." How many times have we heard that? What you're doing is you're not paying attention. You're defending yourself. If you can embrace it and you can look at it and find the value in it and why it is here, then you can grow yourself, and you're much stronger that way.

There's another kind of failure. Once you realize the thing you got rewarded for has become stale and that you need to try something new—when you're trying to innovate, I suppose you make mistakes then too?

Then you really don't know what you're doing, so you make some really terrible things. And you have to have the luxury and the time to do that, and it's hard when you're a working professional to be able to fail like that. But there's nothing better for you than to make some big ugly terrible thing that's just a disaster.

The thing about your mistakes is, when everybody praises something, you don't learn anything. But when you do something terrible, you know what not to do. And that's fantastic. You also learn what you could do if you manipulated it a different way. You have to try these things. You have to see where the failure takes you. That's very scary and risky and also hard to do while you're trying to do something professional. So you have to set aside some personal R&D to make the failure.

Is that what you did, or were you lucky to be in a field where you could fail in your actual work?

When I was young I had this job working in the record business. I was an art director for CBS records and I used to make about 150 records covers a year. About 80 percent of them were terrible. And that was how I learned to be a designer. I was very lucky. Because most kids don't have the option to really fail like that.

That's where I learned the value of the failure. Now, as a working professional and a partner of Pentagram with a reputation to uphold, I'm probably less likely to make outrageously ugly things. But the downside of that is that the work becomes expected, so I have to make changes on my own. So I began painting as a way to balance and be able to make other discoveries, and I made these very complicated map paintings and they started selling. The success hurt the expression. So I have to go back to R&D and develop some other ways of pushing that.

Do you think it takes a particular type of personality to be able to do that, to be able to take down your defenses and be OK with failure? What do you think it is about your personality that allows you to do that?

This is hard, because it gets very personal. Maybe I had less to protect. Some of it came from being a woman, in that the expectation was that I wasn't going to do much anyway, so what the hell?

I find that men are much less likely to talk about this stuff. Unless they're so über-successful that they put themselves out as gurus. It's the idea that failure is not embarrassing to me. What's embarrassing to me is the idea of failing and not knowing. Do you know that Randy Newman song, "I'm Dead and I Don't Know It"?

No.

The whole song is about this. It's on his Bad Love album. The refrain is, "Each record that I'm making is like a record that I made, just not as good." Then he says, "Why do I go on and on and on and on?"

I'll check that out.

It's exactly what we're talking about here. It's this perfect little song.

So is it that failing isn't embarrassing to you or is it that you don't mind being embarrassed?

It's not that failure is not embarrassing to me. It's that I don't have a high enough opinion of myself to have to masquerade as a success.

Has that become more difficult as you've become more successful?

Yes. Because I have more to lose. And I'm afraid of being a fool. All that stuff is real. But, it is the thing that kills the work. Every criticism, anything I hear anybody say about my work (and I hear it all online now), it hurts my feelings—don't get me wrong. But I know the failure is valuable and I have pay attention to it and when I stop paying attention to it I'm really in serious trouble.

Do you try to shield yourself against reviews or do you seek them out to try to get more feedback?

I do both. There is a point where, if I read things about my work on a blog or some such thing, there's always certain amount of value to it and there's a certain amount of snark and mean. So I have to be able to know the difference. But I know that what's problematic is that at a certain point when you've established—and lets face it, I'm just a graphic designer, there is no great thing here—but when you establish a certain level of success within your field, you're a walking target. Because other people assume everything is easy for you, or that you don't have to work as hard, or that you're getting away with something. And yet, that becomes something you have to be acutely aware of so you're not frivolous, so you continue to take the risks and prove yourself, not relying on your fame. You have to pay attention.

Do you think other people understand this process? That in order to be successful and innovative and creative you need failures? Or do you think when people see something that doesn't work, its just, "Ha ha, she failed, she's losing it, she doesn't have it anymore"?

I think that's always the wish, that's always their hope. They would hope that. And that's why I have to pay attention to the failure.

So critics don't understand the value of failure to continued creativity? They see one failure and they go, "Oh, that sucks"?

No, I don't think that's quite right. There's all different sorts of criticism. If someone is going to write about a long career critically, of course they know the value in failure; they know that one doesn't just keep moving along. They'll obviously understand that you can't have a steady stream of successes, there are always those peaks and valleys. If a critic is looking just at once piece, something in an immediate time, then people don't won't see the value in failure. Or they're just being critical because they're judging the piece itself, which is valuable to me.

When you're in the midst of failure, are you always able to keep the long view and remember that a failure is going to lead you to greater successes later? Or do you ever feel discouraged and hopeless?

I talk about the conditions for making discovery. The first condition is that you're young and arrogant, and you can't do that later because then you know too much. That's one way you begin to grow. I make an analogy to The Verdict, a movie with Paul Newman. He plays this down-and-out lawyer who was almost disbarred because he did something shameful in his past. He's given this case, and it's a malpractice case. The client is morally right. There's all these reasons he can't win the case. Finally he gets to the point. And he says, "This is the case. There are no other cases." This is the moment. And at that point you know he can win the thing, because the focus is so strong, the determination is there, and the opportunity is there. The ball being pitched, he's got to hit it out of the ballpark. You are in a state of desperation, and there can be that focus. And that's another way to change. A third way to change is to accidentally, or even by your own manipulation, put yourself into a situation or a product where you're a complete and total neophyte. Then you're operating on an instinctive level and you can make discovery that way. The last way to do it—and I'm looking for a new way, I've done this many times—is to be so bored so senseless by what you're been doing repetitively that it forces you to strike out in a new way.

What advice do you have for people?

If you find yourself defending yourself and protecting yourself and being outraged about what's around you, you're in trouble. That doesn't mean some things aren't genuinely outrageous. But you have to ask yourself: Why are you outraged by something? What are you hiding from? What are you defending?

Was there ever a particularly public failure? Any dramatic moments?

People need to understand is the difference between failure and bad luck. Bad luck is something else—sometimes you lose your job, sometimes you're in the middle of a project and it gets canceled, sometimes you have a client who's impossible. That's just bad luck. Failure is when you have the ability to fix it. It's important to know the difference. It's like that Al Anon prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." There's no point in beating yourself up over bad luck, in trying to manipulate something you can't change. There are people who fall into a downward cycle and blame themselves for things they really have control over.

But for true failure, you should let it beat you up a little bit?

You should pay attention to it, and change the things you can. Ask yourself, why is this not working? Why is my work coming out like this? Why do I do the same thing over and over again?

 

 

Jay Dixit is a science writer based in New York.

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