Turns Out Designing a Toy That Teaches Failure is Really Hard

My 3 year journey designing the world’s first Failure Toy

Ilana Ben-Ari


Designing Failure

This is a photograph from September 2015, of me and my design intern at the time, Jenny. Jenny’s great, incredibly talented, and during her 4 month internship with my company, Twenty One Toys, I had her work with me on our second toy, the Failure Toy, the follow-up to my startup’s shockingly successful Empathy Toy. This was taken just a few weeks into Jenny starting with us, 2 months before our big Failure Toy launch party, on a bench, steps away from the Empathy Toy booth we were supposed to be staffing during the Markham Street Sale. We were on a deadline since I had decided this was the year that I would finally launch the Failure Toy, a design I had envisioned before beginning my business. I had just sent out the invitations to our November launch party. This was my attempt at creating a deadline so that we could finally finish a design that I had talked about endlessly for 3 years but hadn’t had much luck finishing. And by finishing I mean that I actually had no idea how the design would look or work, I just knew that it needed to teach failure, and that I had the final design, somewhere buried in my brain. Since we were out of the office that day, I decided it would be a perfect opportunity for creative exploration. So, Jenny and I sat on that bench in a gallery, keeping a close eye on our booth. We brought our big sketchbooks, our cardboard prototypes in our branded Twenty One Toys tote bags, and had a secret Failure Toy meeting — a moment I would have forgotten had it not been captured by the events photographer that day.

It went… okay. Jenny brought up some amazing ideas about thinking of our triangular pieces in a new way and I ended up incorporating that into our next iteration of the Failure Toy. Fast forward 5 weeks and I’m on the phone crying to one of my closest friends that I think I need to cancel our big Failure Toy launch party because, despite my attempts, it wasn’t ready. I had invited over 100 people to the launch. Everyone I could think of that had been following our journey: friends, colleagues, and fans. I had even written a press release and made a movie — all about the launch of this Failure Toy — and I had nothing. I was devastated.

3 Lessons I Learned Designing a Toy That Teaches Failure:

After the cancellation of the Failure Toy launch, I took 6 months off from designing. Then, after trying for a few months, I took over a year off from the design process. When I picked it back up in June 2016 I made schedules and plans with our new design intern. We made progress, attempting to launch in October 2016, with no luck. I tried once more in the summer of 2017, and then I dropped it for good, and I didn’t pick it back up again until 2018.

Before I tell you if I did, in fact, end up actually designing a toy that teaches failure, here are 3 lessons I learned from trying to:

LESSON 1: If you’re inventing anything new, be prepared to feel like a failure

The irony of cancelling a Failure Toy launch because of a failure to deliver on the design did not go unnoticed by me. I had friends encouraging me to just launch an unfinished project and just say, “hey, it’s fine! It’s a Failure Toy, it’s meant to not work”. But to me that was exactly what I didn’t want. When people hear Failure Toy they think it’s a box that never opens or a pack of nails matched with a broken hammer, just like when they hear Empathy Toy they think it’s a teddy bear with a matching kleenex box. Our toys, in contrast, are beautifully designed wooden puzzles, not made to trick you, but instead to unpack your assumptions about them and to use play to start deep discussions and to provide techniques so you can better understand yourself and others. An unfinished Failure Toy made of cardboard and tape was not going to achieve that and there was no way that I was going to release that into the world. So I cancelled the launch. For anyone in the startup community, you might be familiar with The Startup Curve (see below).

There’s a version of this for the creative process and it looks about the same. Swinging back and forth between I’m awesome, I’m garbage, I think I have something, and this will never work. 2015 for me started my descent into the Trough of Sorrow.

What got me out of it? Mainly knowing that the Trough of Sorrow was part of the process. It still sucked, I still felt like garbage, but thanks to my years of studying design and creativity I knew that failure was part of the design process, especially when you’re inventing something no one has ever seen before. Oh, and also while bootstrapping, and building a company, and of course wearing other people’s pants.

LESSON 2: Feeling like a failure sucks, you should hideout until you’re ready to be judged again

(not me)

So after my third attempt at trying to finish and launch the Failure Toy, I stopped working on it for a year. Then in January of 2018 I got a phone call from one of our biggest clients asking for a Failure Toy workshop in June (a request they’d made in previous years but I had politely declined). This time I said yes. I told them it wasn’t done, but if they were okay with taking a risk, then we would deliver. They agreed. A few weeks later they changed their minds and said they needed a demo of the toy in April before confirming. So I took a deep breath and decided to come out of hiding. I needed to make a plan to get out of this Trough of Sorrow, and move towards the Wiggles of False Hope. I was determined to make the deadline work this time.

But why was this deadline different than the other deadlines? Well, a few things. First of all, my team had grown and matured and I was able to take more than 1 or 2 hours off to focus on the design process. This time I could take a whole day, or even 2, and devote it to toy design work alone. Second, my many disappointments and false starts had made me more resilient and less likely to be disappointed in myself when things didn’t go right. Instead of resenting the process I was really nice to myself. I let myself take naps, walks, and rest when I needed to. I wasn’t as mean to myself when things went wrong, and worked hard on being kind and patient with the process. And, lastly, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t ready to bring others into the process until I had enough time on my own, stewing on the idea, and going through all of the ups and downs. I wasn’t ready for the input or judgement of others, until I was done judging the ideas myself.

LESSON 3: Your idea isn’t done until you’re ready to hear about why it sucks

The next 3 months were a blur. I ran to coffee shops, I bought art materials, I cut and glued in my studio, my living room, and even in my boyfriend’s parents kitchen during the holidays. I was something between Santa Claus and Geppetto. I was obsessed.

(me prototyping in my living room — photo taken by my roommate as she stumbled home at 2am)

The morning of the demo I had our Director of Training and Facilitation, Ryan, meet me at a cafe. I showed him the toy for the first time, we played with it, and an hour later we presented it to the client. While the toy wasn’t perfect, the concept was finally there. An abstract wooden toy where, in teams, you are challenged to build complex structures that balance on an unstable base. In the first round, the builders are blindfolded. As the game progresses, you collect and lose points, you join new teams, are provided with new challenges, and at the end you’re left with the question — who won?

It was a hit. With pieces and the concept nailed down, I was finally out of the Trough of Sorrow and had leap-frogged to full-on Promised Land. The switch from keeping the design a secret, to then bringing my team and our community into the process, was an amazing feeling and a vital next step. I had built a strong base for the concept and I was finally ready for all of the feedback, judgement, suggestions, changes, and critiques. I started scheduling playdates multiple times a week, inviting our friends at the Centre for Social Innovation to play and provide feedback. Ryan took the pieces home to play with his family and friends and came back with excellent edits and suggestions to the gameplay. We started running Failure Toy workshops with the rest of our team and received incredible feedback on the game dynamics, how we collected points, and what the ultimate goal of a 2-hour workshop would be. By the time our deadline of June 21st approached I was in a mad panic to find all of the things that didn’t work with the Failure Toy. Instead of collapsing or shutting down, I was excited with every critique. Judgements no longer felt like an attack on the idea but instead, an excellent suggestion. I had finally turned failure into feedback.

Why Teach Failure?

My passion for teaching failure has stemmed from the idea that, in music and sports, failure is called “practice” but, for some reason, when it comes to our education system, we don’t have another word for failure. Failure is this awful, terrifying F-word, to be avoided at all costs.

Instead of teaching failure education, we’ve been practicing failure abstinence. Even though failure is a natural part of our learning, growth, and development — something that everyone will eventually go through — we don’t talk about it openly. Instead we go through an education system that tells us that failure is the enemy of success, rather than a part of the process. We’re missing this opportunity to talk about all of the layers of failure: how it can help, how it can hurt, how sometimes it’s your fault, how sometimes it isn’t, how sometimes it’s about taking a big risk, and how sometimes failure is not doing anything all.

We need to start teaching failure education, not only because it’s part of being human, but because we all respond to disappointment, risk, opportunities, and challenges differently. Once we better understand how we respond to failure, how our colleagues respond to failure, and how our systems respond to failure, then we will be better equipped to deal with failure. Instead of fearing it, we will start designing for and around it.


We Succeeded in Making a Failure Toy!

Want your own Failure Toy? Pre-order here: https://twentyonetoys.ca/products/failure-toy-kit-preorder

Designing a toy that teaches failure has been the single most challenging and meta project I’ve ever undertaken. There were countless times that I told myself, “this will never work”, “this will be your undoing”, and the worst possible one, “you can’t even succeed in designing a Failure Toy. No medium post will get you out of this hellscape you’ve created.”

And yet, despite all of these incessant voices in the back of my head, we did it. I managed to turn the concept that had been rolling around in my head for years into a tangible design, and I did it by learning how to fail over and over again. We officially have an incredibly beautiful and unique toy that plays with balance, risk, short and long-term gain, and group pressure. Beyond giving you insights into your own discomfort with risk, the toy puts a microscope on your team dynamics and, at the end of the day, how you judge yourself and others. It’s also incredibly fun.

I can’t wait to bring this toy into the world and to start showing people all they have to learn from failure.

Want to see our Failure Toy in Action?

Want to connect?

I’m trying out an experiment where I host a virtual #coffeetawk once a month for people from around the world to connect and ask me anything about business, the design process, and how they might be able to self-finance their own startup. Sign up here: ilanabenari.com/coffee-tawks



Ilana Ben-Ari

Toy designer turned social entrepreneur, founder of @21Toys and #EmpathyToy #FailureToy inventor — https://ilanabenari.com/