Why fear has no place in design

September 30, 2013
Fellow, 2013-2014


A sign hanging in the d.school above the atrium reads, "Nothing is a mistake. There's no win and no fail. There's only make." (Emi Kolawole)

A sign hanging in the d.school above the atrium reads, “Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail. There’s only make.” (Emi Kolawole)

Here are the initial reactions of my friends and family when I told them I was named a Stanford d.school fellow:

  • Concern: “Did you quit your job to become an interior designer?”
  • Shock: “Are you getting another degree?”
  • Confusion: “Isn’t that out of your field?”

It was easy to answer those questions:

  • No.
  • Not really.
  • Not sure.

But there was one more reaction — confusion — expressed in the following question: “What is the d.school and what will you learn there?” That’s the question I struggled to answer.

I’m a social worker by training and a human resources strategist in the federal government by practice. So it was difficult to tell people how I ended up at the d.school. I tried many times to explain it to others and, in the process, to myself. Most of the time the explanations looked like this:

  • “The d. school is an innovator incubator. They focus on innovators not just their innovations.” (This usually prompted the follow-up question: “Okay, but what does that mean?”)
  • “I’m going to learn about the design process from a human-centered approach. Check out their Web site.” (I admit, that one’s an easy cop-out.)
  • “I’m going to work with other fellows from very different backgrounds and disciplines on projects that will make people’s lives better.” (Here’s the question I kept asking myself after saying this: “Doesn’t that happen in lots of places?”)

In short, I was not completely confident I knew what the d.school was or what I would learn there. I felt like an impostor. Did anyone at Stanford read my essays? Did they review my resume? Did they understand the ridiculously large scope of my project?

My palms were sweating when I arrived on the first day of orientation. But as each day unfolded, and I met with d.school faculty, staff and alumni, it became evident that fear wasn’t in their vocabulary. Instead I found a boundless sense of intellectual curiosity, of “what if,” of “how might we.” One day, during the frenzy of a group activity, I looked up and saw these words hanging from the ceiling in the d. school lobby:

“There are no mistakes. There is no win and there is no fail. There is only make.”

Then it all clicked: No fear.

On day 11 of orientation, I met an incoming freshman — or “frosh,” as they’re known here. It was his first day at Stanford. I started asking him questions as part of a day-long d.bootcamp assignment, which was to develop a social strategy for students who are new to campus. What was the experience like for him? What was his favorite part of the day so far? What was easiest for him about the day? What was most difficult? In the process of asking these questions, I experienced the first aspect of the design cycle: empathy. I also discovered that what this frosh needed, above all else, was a friend.

Knight, d.school, Biodesig and CERC fellows gather for a daylong bootcamp at Stanford University. (Emi Kolawole)

Knight, d.school, Biodesign and CERC fellows gather for a daylong bootcamp at Stanford University. (Emi Kolawole)

Eventually I realized there was little separating me — a social worker and government employee — from this teenage freshman. We came from different worlds, but we shared the same basic reaction on our first day at Stanford. I also recognized that it’s practically impossible to hold open the space for empathy with another person while full of fear myself.

The interaction taught me that I needed to make sure the design cycle wasn’t about my “stuff” — my sweaty palms, my anxiety over the concern, shock and confusion of friends and family, my desire for approval or my fear of failure. It would have to be driven by an authentic and unyielding focus on the user and their needs — in this case, the incoming freshman I was interviewing.

My team, at the end of the day-long bootcamp,  prototyped a social app that would help incoming freshmen identify at least five people they would likely have a connection with. The app would also provide opportunities to meet those five people virtually before their first day and suggest a group activity based on an interest they shared. We designed a prototype that would hopefully ease some of the nervousness and reduce the number of sweaty palms.

So, what is the d.school?

It’s a place where people come to redesign themselves and their approach to problem-solving.

It’s a place that believes there are no mistakes.

It has a “no fail” attitude that allows people, like me, to let go of whatever is holding them back from being fully in their creativity (and yes, we are all creative!).

I am here to learn to let go of my own fears.

To push on the edges of myself and my project.

To unleash my human creative potential.

To make friends, be a friend, and empower others.

I am here to make something awesome, with a diverse team inside and outside of government, that is useful and gets used by federal employees and managers, to better serve the public.

I am here, and I belong.

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  1. Kathleen Buckstaff

    Hi! I love this article. My husband shared it with me on facebook. I was an undergraduate a long time ago at Stanford in the Creative Writing department and I have to say that the ABSOLUTE best classes on creativity were the lectures I sat in on in the Design and Engineer Departments.

    For the first time, I heard phrases such as “thinking outside the box” and was introduced to the idea of creating prototypes.

    My work as a writer is still influenced by the teachers and students I encountered there. Enjoy and soak it in!

  2. Stuart Bender


    A brilliant start, right out of the gate! You have written (designed?) a thoughtful blog that is both inspired and inspiring. Thank you! I look forward to virtually joining you on your journey, as you “make” your own distinctive mark on design. It sounds like the journey will be amazing. Best wishes, Stu

  3. Andrew

    Great article Melissa! Will definitely be incorporating, “There are no mistakes. There is no win and there is no fail. There is only make.” into my work.

  4. Abby Wilson

    go Melissa go! I couldn’t agree more. Don’t let impostor syndrome get you down. Now if you can help us bring this fearlessness to the belly of the beast in DC!!>!>!>!>!!>!> We desperately need it.

  5. Prim Malikul

    Great story! As a person who have studied design thinking on my own for a while (from d.school bootleg), I’m totally agreed that ‘no fear’ is one of the key concern in this method! I used design thinking in my own project and was amazed by it’s inspiring result. The working environment has turned to be more fun and creative, and my team has seen lots of ‘possibilities’ in our project!

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