Failed It! Erik Kessels and the fine art of making mistakes

On paper, successful creative director, artist and photographer Erik Kessels doesn’t seem like much of a failure. Yet, as his new book reveals, failing is a healthy part of the creative process – while imperfection can be a fascinating artistic sphere in which to work.

“If you’re anything like me,” writes Erik Kessels in his new book Failed It!, “you’re called an idiot at least once a day. And that’s OK”.

For Kessels, co-founder of communications agency KesselsKramer, failure is vital to the health of the creative mind; mistake-making is an intrinsic part of being different from the norm, of being new and exciting.

Wrongs are more than “mere learning experiences,” he says, they are themselves “early brushes with success”.

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Found photographs showing classic ‘mistakes’, collected by Erik Kessels; online imagery, shown in spread at top of post

But what does this mean in the real world, where success and failure is so often measured in quantitative terms?

Fail enough times in your job and, somewhere along the path of wanton experimentalism, your employer will no doubt have something to say about it.

Yet this reading is to miss the point: it’s failure in and of itself that can, as Kessels suggests, also become the success story. “Avoiding mistakes by not taking risks might not draw the wrath of your boss or client,” he says, “but it also doesn’t draw excess praise”.

Billboard, image found online
Billboard, image found online
From Kurt Caviezel's Insects series of images taken from webcams
From Kurt Caviezel’s Insects series of images taken from webcams
072 Mirror
André Thijssen, Mirror, Rosh Pina, Namibia, 2000

Kessels primarily uses photography to illustrate his points and includes over 150 examples in his book from his collection of artworks and found imagery.

It’s the perfect medium for a discussion of failure: it has a creative and commercial professional class, with established rules and techniques; but thanks to digital technology and the cameraphone it is now open to everyone, amateurs all.

Similarly, the way pictures are made still relies on an interplay between a person and a machine – sometimes with brilliant, completely unintended, effects (there’s a page of finger-over-the-lens moments in the book).

Matt Stuart, Fifth Avenue, 2010
Matt Stuart, Fifth Avenue, 2010

When luck or serendipity enters into the frame, the results can be just as interesting – yet, in these cases, Kessels believes, the dedication to look out for the visual coincidences must be there in the first place (see Matt Stuart’s work, above and below).

It’s in these moments that the benefit of failure becomes apparent for a brand or company – it can be a point of difference that can separate one from the mass of others striving for the same kind of perfection. Look for “breaks in the repetition, little colonies of the irrational disrupting the sameness,” Kessels advises – and mine those areas of imperfection.

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Images by Matt Stuart

Perhaps the best example of what can happen when the ‘rules’ are broken are artist Kent Rogowski’s jigsaws.

While individual puzzles can only be fitted back together in one way, Rogowski realised that the companies that make the jigsaws often use the same cutting template across several different designs. So he bought up lots of puzzles by the same maker.

Kent Rogowski, Love = love 9, 2006-08
Kent Rogowski, Love = love 9, 2006-08

“Using only the flowers and skies from each of the puzzles, I created a series of entirely new compositions by recombining the puzzle pieces,” the artist explains on his site. “These spectacular, fantastical and surreal landscapes sit in direct contrast to the banal and bucolic images of the original puzzles”.

Kessels sees Rogowski’s approach as exactly the right kind of wrongness that should inspire people more generally.

“Scatter the pieces,” he writes. “Throw away the instructions and put the pieces back together in whatever way you damn well please, all the while remembering that things that aren’t meant to go together can still work together.

“And like Rogowski, you might end up with a creation that is technically wrong, but aesthetically just right.”

Early on in the book, Kessels cites the example of Apple’s rather clunky Newton PDA which launched in 1993. Despite a less than positive reception – “ridiculed by critics and consumers as extravagant, expensive and unnecessary” – the device paved the way for the tablet and smartphone revolution.

The path to invention, Kessels seems to suggest, is one that can be paved with mistakes. And some bloody good laughs along the way.

Failed It! How to turn mistakes into ideas and other advice for successfully screwing up by Erik Kessels is published by Phaidon; £6.95. It is available now from phaidon.com

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