Why and how to make mistakes on purpose

As she launches her new book, How to Make Mistakes on Purpose, she explains why and offers a series of practical suggestions for going about it. From how to get a “work high” to what artists can learn from mixed-breed dogs, she shares her tips with honesty, humour and a deep affection for design.

Laurie has a huge breadth of design experience, not to mention a unique, often hilarious way of expressing creative concepts, so we urge you not to miss this brilliant piece. And if you enjoy what you read and want more from Laurie, her popular ‘Mistakes’ workshops are now being held at venues worldwide including in the UK, and via Zoom.

1. Never forget, we are all designers

I’ve been wearing stripes nearly every day since birth. I shop by Googling “Wide Red White Stripes” size XL under $35. I’ve always known exactly what I like. I do not give a fiddler’s fart about fashion or designers and their idiotic labels.

We are all designers. That’s what scissors, Sharpies, ducktape, eyeliner, spray paint, Photoshop and eBay are for. I do not need a mood board to tell me the lay of the land. Why would I care what other people do? I yam what I yam, and I suspect you are, too.

They (whoever “they” are) just don’t make very plain cobalt blue leather boots. They simply do not exist. I wanted some. So I splashed out an Alexander Hamilton on Krylon Cover Maxx Global Blue Gloss Spray Paint & Primer, and – abracadabra!

When I get compliments on my footwear, and I often do, people are surprised to learn that I paint my shoes with spray paint or order custom Vans sneakers online, which I design, and they produce.

What I don’t understand is why everyone doesn’t make things look how they want them to be.

I have a friend who makes cosy little sweaters for all her coat hangers. If it is a natural proclivity, being a clean and sober citizen “washing one’s clean linen in public” can be a thing, a mark of singularity worthy of special mention just as much as being an insurrectionist firebrand with face tattoos and a neon fright wig, which is so cliché.

Trust your goofy ideas. Write them all down. Or record them on Voice Notes – it’s handier. Unless you are being talked down off a ledge, you don’t have to follow influencers. Cultivate individuality, rabid or otherwise. Hang onto it like grim death.

2. Pretend you are a Martian visitor to Earth

Out of the blue, I was invited to hold my ‘Mistakes on Purpose’ workshop in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The client was an investment management firm whose goal was to raise the profile of Grand Rapids as a cool, up-and-coming business destination with a brilliant economic future. And for all I know, this could very well be the case.

The Amway Grand Hotel’s mission statement can be found on its website: “To be the most admired hotel company by delivering quality experiences for our guests and employees”. Very well. I get that. I live in a bubble, avoid Fox News, and thus have never seen so many right-wing Republicans in one place. Not in real life!

As usual, I was spending half the year in Sweden, but they flew me the five thousand miles business class, paid a hefty per diem, and $10,000 for a forty-five-minute workshop. On the check, it said ‘Failure Lab’.

I arrived at my palatial, spectacularly neutral suite at the legendary Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. Apparently, a jewel in the crown of whatever “The Curio Collection by Hilton” might mean. I have never before seen such subtle variations, which ran the gamut of bland tonality from off-white to ivory. As recompense, perhaps, with an ecru nod to quirky ingenuity, the postmodern teabags were pyramidical, with a tiny green leaf for a tag. The oval bath soap had an oval hole in it.

Wowzers! I kept it. That’s the kind of tortured effort that provides corporate luncheons with Crayolas that never get used. Naming your conference rooms ‘Tupac’, ‘Bowie’, ‘Turing’, and ‘Kubrick’ will not help, either.

There were two king-sized beds, each with no less than six Brobdingnagian pillows. My picture windows looked over the majestic Grand River toward the city centre and the fabulous Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum, with its teeming archives of vital material on domestic issues and foreign relations during the Cold War era, focusing on the Ford administration and the saucy, salacious papers of Betty Ford, first lady and saviour of substance abusers.

There was a nipple in my room.

I hadn’t been prepared for that. I mean, this wasn’t Hooters, the David Zwirner gallery, or the Whitney Biennial, “Where nipples are just the beginning!” (I made up that tagline. What do you think?)

Full disclosure: okay, the print said “Tumbleweed” in the corner, so I’m guessing that whoever chose this pink and stimulating piece of décor wasn’t specifically looking to display areolae. Context is everything. That’s why I was delighted, nay, over the moon to find a nipple in my room.

A surprise is so rare in the art world. In fact, it’s the last world where surprises can happen because it’s trying so very hard to shock us.

Did every visitor to that room see the nipple on the wall? Well, they should have because it was there.

To illustrate my meaning, read this bit from my favourite Thurber story, The Little Girl and the Wolf:

She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap, a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead. – James Thurber (1939)

Remember Bluebeard. If some hunky and well-dressed fairytale dreamboat with a blue beard and an ostentatiously plumed hat goes around murdering your sisters and hanging their bloody corpses from hooks in a forbidden underground chamber, you really should say something. Yes, even if he’s a handsome, wealthy, and popular nobleman. Dare to see the emperor’s new nudity. And then go tell everybody about it.

3. Start thinking quantity, not quality. Think anything but quality

Sometimes it’s just a numbers game.

Here’s an office worker. Let’s call him Egbert. He is spectacularly ugly. Short, fat, and bald. He has bad skin and an embarrassing stutter.

His co-workers noticed that every day Egbert would be seen around town in the company of beautiful women, going out for drinks, having lunch. He was having the time of his life! Nobody could understand it. The workers draw straws. The loser has to ask Egbert his secret. Egbert just laughs and replies, “Hey, I know I’m no oil painting. But here’s the thing: every single day, I ask one hundred women.”

Okay. Except perfection is not what I’m going for; what I want is the careless, breezy high of working fast, making tons of stuff with a kind of disdain for your own ephemeral, trashable product because you’re too busy enjoying the process of producing it. And that happy, lighthearted feeling will show in the single drawing, recipe, product, or idea you don’t throw away. If a result is any good, it’s not because it was carefully, slowly, painstakingly made.

Results, to me, are never precious. I don’t even like that word. What really has great value is your enjoyment—the fun of it. I always know when that “work high” is upon me–because I forget to eat. Quick and Sloppy Wins the Race.

4. Don’t be so picky

Yes, we human beans are the mishmash result of whatever the opposite of family planning is. And it’s a good thing, too. Several studies have shown that mixed-breed dogs have a health advantage. A German study (and the Germans should know) found that mixed-breed dogs need less veterinary care, are prone to fewer diseases, and live longer. Swedish researchers stated that mongrels are consistently at lower risk for disease than most purebred dogs, and data from Denmark also suggested that mixed breeds live longer compared to pure breeds.

As long as we don’t drink out of the toilet and keep boning whoever we want, indiscriminately, our species should continue as long as it takes to destroy our home planet entirely. And by the way, Take that, White Supremacists. Woof!

5. It’s your right not to choose

When I attended the Rhode Island School of Design, the Illustration and Graphic Design departments were in separate buildings: they weren’t even sleeping together! Shocking.

For some people, goals are clear, and the passionate pursuit of one’s chosen vocation is a joy. For others, if you get your MBA and then go on to become a banker, it feels like there’s something missing. In that case, I’d say, try something random, unusual – add an unlikely, arcane subject and another string to your bow. Communicators should have something to communicate. Nicht Wahr? If you don’t experiment while you’re young, you might never do it.

I went into Graphic Design because I love typography. In the ’70s, what I called the Swiss Miss style prevailed. Serious theories via Basel. Words like “vernacular” and “semiotics”. “Univers” was the only acceptable typeface and grid systems galore. No pictures were allowed unless they were particularly boring, grainy, black-and-white photos of concrete walls or abandoned gas stations. Those grey squares bored me to tears. And I missed drawing, humans, humour, and colour, so I transferred to the Illustration Department. Every single piece I produced included typography, and the teachers didn’t think that was illustration, really. I was not encouraged to “mix” these sacrosanct disciplines.

They wouldn’t let me back in the Graphic Design Department unless I enrolled for a whole extra year. Clearly, graphic design is a very Serious Thing. The Big Choice of Major had become such a source of contention that, for me, the fun of making art all but disappeared. I felt alone, seesawing between these “departments” that seemed to me like they should merge.

Here’s the absolute worst thing you can say to the head of a graphic design department: “An extra year? Oh, Come On. It’s only graphic design! It’s not like engineering. A building’s not going to fall on somebody’s head because I missed half a semester.” The Head said, “Now we won’t let you back at all.” I was effectively kicked out of graphic design. There was nowhere to go but painting, where no one minded the store anyway, and I had time for a few graphic design electives.

I was young and insecure. Now I’m old and insecure. It’s ever so much better.

If focusing on one thing doesn’t feel right, there’s no reason why you should do so.
I’ve pursued all three pursuits ever since, with happy results. I may not earn a fortune, but I enjoy my work every day. Like the sublime, sweet, and salty taste of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, graphic design, illustration and painting (and writing and comedy) could live in peace and harmony together!

I’m sixty-six, and I still haven’t picked a major.

Some of the above was excerpted from Laurie Rosenwald’s new book, How to Make Mistakes on Purpose, published by Hachette Books, which you can preorder here. You can follow Laurie on Instagram, see her workshops on Vimeo and learn more about her workshops and more on her website.