Why Getting it Wrong is the Future of Design


Art historians describe a cycle to creative movements that we’ve seen repeated through the centuries. And Wired’s Scott Dadich believes we are on the cusp of an important shift in technology design today.

Dadich relates the story of Edgar Degas and his widely panned painting Jockeys Before the Race. In it, Degas breaks a cardinal rule of “good” painting design by adding a pole the foreground, just slightly off-center, running smack through the head of one of the horses.

What was Degas thinking? According to Dadich, this was an intentional move to break out of a creative stalemate.

“Think of it as one step in a cycle: In the early stages, practitioners dedicate themselves to inventing and improving the rules—how to craft the most pleasing chord progression, the perfectly proportioned building, the most precisely rendered amalgamation of rhyme and meter,” Dadich explains.

“Over time, those rules become laws, and artists and designers dedicate themselves to excelling within these agreed-upon parameters, creating work of unparalleled refinement and sophistication—the Pantheon, the Sistine Chapel, the Goldberg Variations. But once a certain maturity has been reached, someone comes along who decides to take a different route.

“Instead of trying to create an ever more polished and perfect artifact, this rebel actively seeks out imperfection—sticking a pole in the middle of his painting, intentionally adding grungy feedback to a guitar solo, deliberately photographing unpleasant subjects. Eventually some of these creative breakthroughs end up becoming the foundation of a new set of aesthetic rules, and the cycle begins again.”

According to Dadich, the time is ripe for just such a breakout in technology design.

“Now, we need a shift in perspective that allows us to move forward. We need a pole right through a horse’s head. We need to enter the third stage of this cycle. It’s time to stop figuring out how to do things the right way, and start getting it wrong.”

He relates his own experience as creative director for Wired, when he intentionally adding a bad element to a cover design, largely to annoy his boss. He didn’t realize it at the time, but that choice came to inform the overall creative process at Wired for years.

This strategy, which Dadich coined “Wrong Theory,” can bring unexpected and startling results that become movements in design and set new standards for creativity. And it happens not just in design but in all artistic endeavors, “like Miles Davis intentionally seeking out the ‘wrong notes and then trying to work his way back,” he says.

The key, according to Dadich, is to know the rules cold before you decide to break them.

“That’s why Hunter Thompson could be a great gonzo journalist while so many of his followers and imitators—who never mastered the art of traditional reporting and writing that underlay Thompson’s radical style—suffer in comparison,” Dadich continues.

The human brain, while it loves symmetry, is also strangely challenged by the imperfect. It’s those “wrong” notes that stand out in our memories and leave a lasting impression; it’s that beauty mark on Cindy Crawford’s lip that adds so much to her look.

As we look at the digital world, in its sleek sameness and best standards, it seems the time is ripe for a little Wrong Theory in this realm.

“Netflix undercut the entire structure of television by deciding to release every episode of its original series at once,” Dadich notes. “That meant trading off some of the pleasure of the weekly cliffhanger and the day-after watercooler chatter for more complicated plotlines…and the joys of binge-watching.”

It’s an exciting time to be a designer, not just in the confluence of print and digital media, but in the mindset of openness that makes a Wrong Theory revolution possible.