Eat My Words: The Art of the Deadline

designdisasters1Awhile back I mentioned my deep swoon when Steven Heller asked me to contribute to a book of essays about design and failure. Well here we are a few months later and the book, Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failures, and Lessons Learned, has finally landed on my desk. Who knew disasters could be so delightful? Some of the stories are really, really funny. Plus, the book is one big visual pun, with type upside-down and oddly aligned, running off the page and into the gutters.

As a sort of sneak preview, which I will only provide if you all promise to buy the book, I’d love to share my essay with you. And thanks again to Steve—who is actually speaking at UCLA at 6pm tonight—for making failure fabulous.

The Art of the Deadline
by Alissa Walker

As my parents may have mentioned, I was quite an accomplished artist by the age of five. But once I succumbed to the daily regimen of kindergarten, the pressure nearly ruined my fledgling career. The joy of creating, once infinite with possibility, now came with a strict time limit.

The other kids would dutifully arrange their torn fluffs of black paper into the prescribed facial expressions of a jack o’lantern, following the three-step directions, simpletons as they were. But my plans were bigger; my proposed pumpkin, 3D. By the end of class, while the other five-year-olds dropped confetti trails en route to the trashcan and wondrously peeled Elmer’s Glue from their fingers, I was feverishly stuffing a crinkly orange cavity full of construction paper. See, my pumpkin will really be round, I pointed to Mrs. Gold as she passed my desk. That’s great, she said, but it’s time to clean up. Artistic aspirations meant nothing when scheduled right before recess.

Eventually, you could take your work home with you, presenting your parents with a commissioned symbol of your love to be exhibited on the fridge gallery. But I only saw this as an extension. I’d hoard my piece-in-progress, dashing through the kitchen on my way up to my room and the auxiliary set of art supplies, while my mother tried to extract my coat. “Noooo! It’s not finished, Mommm!”

It was never finished.

In November we were given 30 minutes to deliver a Thanksgiving kindergarten classic. Trace your hand here, attach beak, snood and feathers as such, scrawl feet like upside-down pitchforks. I could hardly conceal my disdain for such a tawdry representation. I shuffled the brown paper around on the page, trying to subvert the assignment. What if I created a pilgrim turkey instead? I set to work creating an anthropomorphically-correct bird. But it was ambitious, even for me, and before I could even consider the graphic implications of a head, let alone a black buckled hat, we were headed to lunch. I would have to finish later.

The next morning I walked into my classroom, now draped with gourds and speckled Indian corn in anticipation of the impending feast. Suddenly, I blanched, my heart sticking to my ribcage. On a clothesline strung above our cubbies, the turkeys were clothespinned for display, two dozen hands waving in unison.

And then there was mine:  A plucked, headless turkey breast.

Too embarrassed to ask for its removal, I was forced to endure the rest of the short week knowing the misshapen poultry was looming over my shoulder. Suspended in mid-air like a frozen cutlet, the incomplete bird taught me a lesson no art teacher could. My boundless creativity was meaningless if I couldn’t get it down on paper in time.

The next year, when I was in first grade, the entire school was instructed to design posters for a contest commemorating the end-of-the-year carnival. I won first place. I remember seeing it, hanging among the mostly-upperclassmen finalists, its royal blue ribbon twirling in the air conditioning. I should have been proud, I suppose. But honestly, I was just glad it was finished.

Buy the book: Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failures, and Lessons Learned.

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  • m0ddie

    alissa, oh, how i relate to this story. perhaps this introduction to “allotted time” projects becomes a problem later in life? as you stated, one isn’t ALLOWED to finish the culmination their youthful intellectual and creative talents. your essay impies, correctly, that we are concepting design and art from a very tender age. with our missions thwarted, perhaps we learn this behavior and translate it later to a more grown-up term: procrastination. just a thought. and yes, the spoils of victory when time is on one’s side…nothing tastes sweeter. i should show your essay to mrs. swenke and miss lockhart and sister collette and mrs. thomas and mrs. mccarthy…they all had a hand in this sinister plot.
    thank you for sharing your wonderful story, and yes, i will buy the book. you will be pleased to know that i am getting very, very good at failing. reading how others fail can only make me better. xo -m

  • Beth

    My all time biggest design disaster was clay in 3rd grade- I designed a sculpture of our dog, Bonnie, playing with the neighbor dog, Sherlock. Unfortunately, my design looked very much like 2 dogs mating. I swear- they were just playing. This is one project that I wish I had not finished.

  • Alissa

    m0ddie, I totally agree that this condition manifests as adult-onset procrastination! That is a great point. Thanks so much for reading and your nice words.

    And Bethy, you are selling yourself short. I remember that sculpture as being very good. Whether or not the dogs were humping, they were very realistic.

  • lenny

    solid work. i was relating to your words at first considering where i’m at with the edit on the corita film and how we both always strive for the best. although by the end of your essay i must say that i wasn’t in full agreement with the closing thoughts. i’ll be glad when this project is finished, for sure, as it’s going to take all i can give but i know i’ll feel extremely proud as well. and it won’t just be a by product of being done, i always want it to be genuine. i guess i just don’t want to settle for being glad that something is done. but all that being said, know that your writing did inspire me and keeps me hopeful. now back to the edit…

  • Year One Online

    Hey, cool tips. I’ll buy a bottle of beer to the man from that forum who told me to go to your blog :)
    p.s. Year One is already on the Internet and you can watch it for free.

  • Alissa

    m0ddie, I totally agree that this condition manifests as adult-onset procrastination! That is a great point. Thanks so much for reading and your nice words.

    And Bethy, you are selling yourself short. I remember that sculpture as being very good. Whether or not the dogs were humping, they were very realistic.