A couple thousand years ago, legend has it, a Chinese cook was fooling around with a mix of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter—common kitchen items at the time—when they ignited. Initially alarmed, the cook became interested, packing some into a bamboo tube, which shot out and—BOOM! Fireworks were born.
Something beautiful borne by accident. How does this apply to design? Constantly. From fast food to fine art, graphics to googling, unintentional design—that is, design by surprise—has long proven to be a tactic for success. What first may feel like distraction or disaster (or at least a dead end) may quickly turn to creative discovery.
Design-by-surprise comes in three flavors: accidents, happy or otherwise; extensive brainstorming, which often shakes up cerebral cells; and utter desperation. For designers, a creative decision made from the third option—usually late at night in the studio, pizza boxes piling up, brains fried—can often lead to triumph. On his blog, designer Michael Johnson of London’s Johnson Banks relates how he once needed a way to unify a series of posters for Paris’s Parc de La Villette, whose scheme included a thick black border. Exhausted after a long train ride and unhappy with his own progress, he gave his “uptight English layouts” to a junior designer, who promptly skewed Johnson’s design five degrees off center. “She placed the whole scheme into dynamic tension,” Johnson explains. The result was perfect.