Why risk it?: How getting comfortable with creative risk taking can lead to success

Sarah Eisenman

Associate Design Director

Thursday, April 13, 2017

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Leader, explorer, risk taker. Whenever I take a personality test, these are the attributes that usually pop up for me. It’s that last one that I identify with the most. There’s nothing more thrilling to me than the possibility of succeeding at something I’ve never done before. Some might think that’s crazy, but I say it’s hopeful. And as a designer, I’ve learned that taking creative risks during the design process is what leads to innovative ideas that uniquely solve my clients’ needs. In fact, it would be more crazy of me to avoid risk, because without being comfortable wading into the unknown, I wouldn’t be truly investigating and solving my client’s challenges and problems.

I realize risk taking may not be attractive to everyone. We all deal with a fear of failure and the negative perceptions that come along with it. Embracing risk requires us to acknowledge the possibility of failure and push forward in spite of it. Great designers know this. It’s inherent to their way of looking at the world. That’s because one of the intentions of design is to elicit a response and inspire action. The risk is that even with a deep understanding of the psychology of design, there is no way to guarantee what that response is going to be.

So how have some of the world’s most renowned graphic designers used risk to create work that not only addresses their clients’ needs, but becomes iconic in its own right? They understand the benefits of risk taking and pursue personal projects that allow them to illustrate those benefits to potential clients.

Risk gives you opportunity to experiment

Jessica Walsh and Timothy Goodman’s book, 40 Days of Dating: An Experiment, documents the very personal accounts of the two dating one another in a 40-day experiment to further understand their dating hang-ups. Beginning as a blog, the project revealed influential childhood experiences, dating patterns, negative relationship roadblocks, and the couple’s true desires and aspirations in love. It required Walsh and Goodman to reveal incredibly private aspects of their lives. On a personal level, the experiment was an utter failure as their blossoming relationship quickly unwound. But, in the end it allowed them to let go of expectations and accept aspects of their own personalities, helping them move forward into happy and committed relationships with other partners. And, what started as a small personal experiment became an internet sensation and popular book on dating and design, making both Walsh and Goodman household names in the design community.

Risk inspires progress

When a risk doesn’t pay off, you are faced with the reality of not quite getting where you expected. This is a moment of illumination that gets you one step further to cracking the code of the unknown. It’s a moment to take stock of the growth, knowledge, and progress that took place along the way and to begin thinking about a new approach, guided by the insights you’ve learned from taking the risk. Graphic designer Paula Scher, known for her groundbreaking typography, has been quoted as saying, “All the little risks I took were sort of like all the apartments I had moved into: I was finding the right spot.” She’s right – each trial is an opportunity to tweak and adjust your strategy—moving you forward instead of stagnating in the same place.

The only way to create breakthrough work is to break free from your routine and question established truths. Experiment and test solutions that you aren’t sure will work, look beneath the surface for clues you may have overlooked, and don’t get too attached to your preconceptions. Being open to this process and allowing it to be the journey that is will allow you to subjectively analyze the roadblocks to your success.

Risk leads to discovery

Austrian graphic design Stefan Sagmeister is known for provocative design moves like carving typography into his own body. In his 2009 TED talk “The Power of Time Off” he explains how he risked his business by closing his studio to take a year-long sabbatical in Bali. While there, a run-in with local dogs led him to design a line of dog-inspired furniture – for humans. It didn’t take off. But, the experience brought him insights, like the revelation that he had only ever used design for promotional purposes and that when it comes to designing for brands, sameness is overrated. Applying these insights to his vision for the agency led to him accepting new types of projects that changed the trajectory of his work, ultimately leading to wider cultural recognition and success.

A certain level of risk is necessary to accomplishing something new, something that hasn’t been tangible before, and something that can unlock a world of new possibilities and potential and make it real. But what about risk taking allows this transformation to transpire? Well let the “master of leaping” give you some insight… it’s the act of falling on your face! Yes, it’s the utter and complete failures that lead to beautiful new insights.

It’s true: the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward

Getting comfortable with everyday risks prepares us for bigger risks to come, and bigger rewards down the road. Each new and learned experience gives you the opportunity to master the next, and knowledge today that you didn’t have yesterday. I have come to realize my infatuation is not with risk itself but the desired outcome that makes the risk and all subsequent failures not only worth it but a necessity to achieving even my most outlandish goals. So my advice is to get out there and fall flat on your face—but then get up, move forward and apply it!

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