Design by Surprise

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By: Colin Berry | May 23, 2011

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.

History proves this. Penicillin, microwave ovens, corn flakes, Silly Putty, vinegar, stainless steel, cellophane, Cracker Jack, dynamite—were it not for someone’s screw-up, we wouldn’t be enjoying them today. In the 1830s, when British chemists John Lea and William Perrins tried replicating a Bengali condiment made from malt vinegar, molasses, anchovies, and tamarind extract, the result was so vile they locked it away in the basement, where, fermenting, it transformed into the first batch of Worcestershire sauce.

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.

Picture by Kokoro & Moi

But simple accidents can also be a source of success. One stormy night in her studio on an island west of Vancouver, Canadian artist Marian Bantjes was trying to create a tribute image for the Manhattan design firm Number 17—until the power went out. Computer-less, she lit candles and, on a whim, tried gluing some toothpicks together.

“My intention had been to make a complex structure of a ’17,’ the way I made toothpick sculptures when I was a kid,” Bantjes recalls. ”I’d made only the barest framework when I noticed the candlelight casting an array of wonderful shadows.” Her complexity was already complete. “It was a great surprise.”

Creatives in similar pinches might recall how the best design ideas are usually the simplest, and usually lurk within the object itself. A carabiner makes a great key ring; a bike messenger bag holds a hipster’s laptop; toothpaste works as silver polish, zit cream, and scuba-goggle defogger. New York designer Barbara Glauber, brainstorming a They Might Be Giants CD cover a few years ago, found her idea staring her in the face: “[TMBG guitarist] Jon Flansburgh wanted to fill the package with charts and graphs,” she recalls. “As I was plotting out the song listing, I realized there were 29 tracks and 30 lines in a bar code—it literally was the bar code.” The UPC became Glauber’s trope, refracted in sharp angles across the CD.

Some designs, like the clunky layouts for Craigslist or Google, shouldn’t succeed, yet do; plenty of wrongs turn out right. The Dutch firm LUST proudly embraces mistakes as a central pillar of its design style, resisting new versions of software for the random (and often beautiful) results created by crashing old ones.

Picture by Kokoro & Moi

Sometimes a tight budget births a bright idea: Sean Adams, a partner at AdamsMorioka in Santa Monica, felt pressure to create an inexpensive graphic program for Mexico, a West Hollywood eatery.

“We began working the way we’ve handled other restaurants, with highly refined and sophisticated forms,” Adams remembers, “but the result was duller than a doorknob. At one point I thought, ‘What if we rode this horse the wrong way?’” On the spot, Adams’s team invented a fictional character—“an ambitious artist” and a “cousin of [Mexico’s] owner”—who was an enthusiastic designer but had never gone to art school. This “cousin” chose the cheapest printers in town, didn’t notice how his colors clashed, and never checked his copy too carefully.

“The entire solution became about mistakes,” says Adams. “The placemats vibrated between blue and red; the business cards were off-register; the fax form switched between English and Spanish.” The designers hand-painted all Mexico’s images, frames and characters, redoing several to make them worse. All the type was done on a typewriter; even the building was painted bright pink. “The end result is completely lacking in quality or taste,” Adams grins. “We are very proud of it.”

Some design may intentionally capitalize on surprise. A 2010 Pointflex/Harris survey of some 4,000 U.S. mobile app users reveals 47 percent click or tap on mobile ads by mistake. Who’s to blame for this terrible design? Designers? Cynical marketers? Technology?

Sometimes even a potentially catastrophic design error creates a different kind of surprise: After building the Citicorp Center tower in Manhattan in the 1970s, William Messurier, the structural engineer, discovered a potentially fatal design flaw that could allow the building to topple in high winds. After agonizing with the knowledge, Messurier took his news to the architect, Hugh Stubbins, and then to Citicorp’s CEO and chairman with a plan for how to fix it.

They did, in six months. For Messurier, the ultimate surprise may have been the fact that rather than finding his career ruined, he was actually lauded for his forthrightness.

“There’s something more interesting in getting it wrong,” suggests L.A.-based illustrator Ed Fella, who, since his professional retirement 25 years ago, has made a career of “done-wrong” aesthetics. Fella’s work is featured this summer in the 22nd International Poster Festival, in Chaumont, France. “Rules are made to be broken only exceptionally,” he likes to say.

Finally, lest we forget, plenty of design’s most moving surprises are rooted in human survival. In 2002, using only a fifth-grade science book, a broken bicycle, and a discarded tractor fan, Malawian teenager William Kamkwamba built a 16-foot windmill to generate electricity for his village. How can Kamkwamba’s creativity inspire first-world designers? Easy. Look around. Possibilities lie everywhere. While others are staring at their screens, trying not to be surprised, the rest of us can embrace the unexpected, looking further—literally—into the thrumming, thriving real world, where an infinite inventory of design options is perhaps the greatest surprise of all.