Sometimes Success is Actually in the Failures

On the importance of field work, reflection, and flow.

Vanessa Koch is a designer at Asana in San Francisco and an alumna of our professional development program, Bridge. She recently collaborated on an interactive mural project with youth through the Mural Music & Arts Project at PROXY in Hayes Valley. Their mural  proposed the question, “How Can We See More Than Skin Color?” She also draws a memory every day as part of her 100 Days Project, which is documented on Instagram.

How did you decide to do memory drawings as a project for your 100 Days Project?
I was traveling in South America, a place I had never been, and I started paying attention to the memories that became associated with new experiences. For example, the first time I saw monkeys swinging through the trees in the Amazon, it took me back to my childhood bedroom and playing with my sister. I’m interested in these mental associations and triggers, and was compelled to document them. The only tools I had with me were a notebook and a couple of markers, so there was a material constraint. I started sketching the memories while traveling, and when I got back home I scanned them and added color digitally. That night I got back, I read about Elle Luna’s 100-Days Project, and so I decided that was day 1.

Four works from Koch’s 100 Days Project.

Would you recommend the 100 Days project to someone else?
Absolutely, it’s the best thing I have ever done for myself. The 100 day framework allows you to accomplish one thing each day without the usual pressures. I used to come home from work, want to create something, and get overwhelmed by my cabinet of art supplies. The constraints have been really valuable, everyday I know it is going to be a memory. I record memories throughout my day as I have them and then choose from the log for my next piece.

Since starting the project, I am more peaceful and fulfilled. It reminded me of how important it is to play.

What was the impetus for the #HowCanWe mural project and what was that process like?
We had access to a large wall at Proxy in Hayes Valley. It was soon after Michael Brown was shot dead and people had opened their eyes toward Ferguson and racial violence in America. We wanted to better understand racial bias and talk about it with the local community through an interactive mural. We had a cohort of young people from the Mural Music Arts organization who were excited to collaborate with us. We started by holding workshops to talk about both the design process and the issues of race that affected their lives. The next step was field work, where we asked questions to people in the neighborhood, on site at Proxy. We gathered reactions and noted which questions generated the most compelling responses.

Meanwhile, we prototyped what the design would look like and tested a few variations. We worked on how to activate it with color and how to unveil it to be visually engaging. We painted the giant word “How?” and had stickers for people to write their feelings and responses, inviting them to build off one another’s ideas.

#HowCanWe mural installed at Proxy in Hayes Valley. A few of the black rectangles start to disappear as the community starts to engage.

Why were you interested in this project? What did you get out of it?
I love people. When I am designing it’s to celebrate the nuances of being human and to bring joy into daily life. I love doing user research and talking to customers, that’s where I find inspiration. But that connection does not happen all the time, and more often than not, there is a disconnect. Often times we are designers sitting in an office trying to solve a problem for people in a very different context. I am compelled by projects where I get grounded in the community and have the opportunity to work with youth and the diversity of people in the city.

The mural project gathered responses to the question from the community, such as, “think hard about what you have been given” and look beyond color and meet the character”.

What was one thing you learned from this experience?
Jump sooner. We spent a lot of time debating the questions and the presentation, and trying to get it right. I had this fear that we would put it all out there and it would fall flat. The most surprising thing was that the very rudimentary action of putting a question up on the wall engaged people deeply and they could speak to us for hours from one prompt. People were eager to share their ideas and had thoughtful things to contribute. I think it’s good that we prototyped as much as we did, and that was very valuable for the students. But what I learned from the experience is the value of fieldwork.

Koch painting the #HowCanWe mural at Proxy.

What is the relationship between your side projects and what you do while you are at Asana?
The design team at Asana is currently redesigning our web product and our overarching brand. It’s is a big undertaking and so there is a lot of feedback to consider along with a lot of energy being put toward the end result. As I help lead the team on this project, I aim to create a space for everyone to do their best work amongst all this feedback and energy. I recognize that too much prescriptive feedback can produce a watered-down end result. Instead of a critique full of judgements and answers, I’ll ask a designer more questions about their intentions with the design. This framework makes room for exploration and play, which inevitably leads to more inspired work. If the process is fun and collaborative, it will shine through in the end. My 100 Days project helped me find my own flow, and it reminded me of the importance of constraints, timelines, and making the space to play. These are the tools that I bring back to the design team.

Conducting the fieldwork for the mural project made it easier for me to access that skill set when we were brainstorming at work. One day at work we were brainstorming out steps of a project and making lists and plans and we realized we should just go down to the lobby and put a prototype in front of people. People were willing to give us 5 minutes of their time, we got a lot of insights, and we were back in the office in an hour with a much clearer direction about what we were going to do.

The energy that comes from real people is something I thrive on as a designer.

What makes side projects special?
Side projects can be something much more open, you don’t have to go in a specific direction and that freedom allows you to get into a flow state. Evenings and weekends are very precious, how are you going to spend it? It’s sacred time. As you start to use the muscle for things that make you come alive, happy and fulfilled, you start to crave it.

How Vanessa Koch Does Side Projects

Create the space & Learn how to say no.
Before I was working on the #HowCanWe project, I had a lot of small side efforts on my plate that were easy to say yes to, friends needed logos, for example. These projects were a lot of one-offs and did not add up to anything, but they were filling my time. I wanted to do a side project that was more meaningful to me. You have to carve out the time for it. What that translated to for me was saying “no.” It was hard to say no to friends, but I knew I had to create a blank slate, make the space, and I knew saying no will eventually lead to a yes. When Enrique and I started talking about the mural project, I was able to say yes and dive in.

Remember: it is not the thing you are supposed to do.
You should not be doing this to get the next job, impress people, or because you thought you should. It should come from the heart because the time you spend on side projects is sacred, precious time. It should be something that you really love.

Finding the time is as important as finding the energy.
It’s not just about the time but also energy. When do you have the most energy to do it? Are you a morning person? Scheduling time into a calendar can be useful because things always come up, like social events. Connecting with other people who are doing side projects or finding some venue to share the work is important. This could be a blog or emailing your project to your mom, for example.

An audience can sustain your energy.

Write out a vision & make time for reflection.
Write out a vision, return to it, and edit that vision as you go. Build in time for reflection and writing down your thoughts and reactions as you go. Sometimes success is actually in the failures, because what you learn is going to be more valuable going forward than what you got right. So it’s important to document your process.


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We’ll be sharing more about the creative process of design leaders during our Bridge program. Keep in touch here before applications open September 15th.



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