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The Imagery of Failure

A visual feature on failure that I organized for the academic journal 'Social Research: An International Quarterly,' a publication of The New School for Social Research. I asked 10 people working in multiple disciplines to create a simple, schematic line drawing of failure, using only a piece of paper and black pen. The idea was to explore what failure looks like, and how we might visually represent it—a drawing exercise with roots in the work of German theorist and psychologist Rudolph Arnheim. To read the full text that accompanied the feature, click here. Many thanks to Arien Mack for the opportunity.


Fall 2016


Social Research

It seems to me that failure—before it is redeemed as some juncture on the path to success or some necessarily challenging stretch in innovation—is foundering in the face of expectation. It is an inability to fulfill the form of something that presents itself as monolithic, even as it may be, ultimately, unbounded on every side save the one confronting you.

Failure is a decline in hope and aspirations.


My body floating away, feet first, and my too-heavy head dragging on the ground. 


Sometimes you try so hard, you plan and scheme, calculate and recalculate, and yet it doesn’t work out. And you ask yourself: was it only a matter of precision?


Failure is a concept that is meaningful only in context. (What seems to be a gaffe in four lines appears to be a pattern in sixteen.)


A straight line heads towards a higher point—the goal. But on the way there is an unexpected fissure, which creates a painful wound. The line recovers, but the primary objective will not be achieved.


Never moving beyond what is already familiar and rejecting the unknown by turning inward. No new discoveries are made because of a conscious refusal. What is familiar becomes oversaturated, resulting in a lack of perspective like digging deeper into a hole.


Failure feels like submerging your face in a bucketful of molten lead and seeing in it an infinity of failures— present, future, past; patterned and threaded; completely indistinct— and then, between their lines: conclusions drawn and lessons learned, although not yet, not while the failure is fresh, and yes you should and will one day appreciate it all, but not today—today: mild disappointment that will not graduate towards a socially acceptable despair, not even melancholy, just a nagging sort of ennui, for which “ennui,” you think, is really too big a word.


Failure is the fall of a construction in its builder’s hands.


The outward facing cubes represent a rational expectation or reasoned structure—a plan, straight and understandable. Failure is the breakdown of this plan. We try to put our worlds and lives together, and failure is the unlooked-for outcome. It is also the case, though, that sometimes the ‘failure’ is more interesting than the plan.


text imagey

The Imagery of Failure

What does failure look like? How might we visually represent it? And what can drawings of failure tell us about its conceptual and emotional structure?
With these questions in mind, I asked 10 people to create a simple, schematic line drawing of failure, using only a piece of paper and a black pen. I also had them briefly describe the thinking behind their chosen representation. The results of this visual experiment are published here.
This experiment has its roots in the work of German art theorist and psychologist Rudolph Arnheim. In his book Visual Thinking, published in 1969, he documented a series of conceptual drawing exercises in which he asked students to visually depict abstract concepts such as democracy, youth, past/present/future, and a good/bad marriage. Intent on mining the imagery of thought, he found that his students were able to give visible structure to the themes without much difficulty, using their personal experiences to guide their visual interpretations. The exercises were part of Arnheim’s larger mission to demonstrate that pictorial representations can be instruments of abstract reasoning, and that thinking and perceiving are indivisibly intertwined.
The following drawings reveal thinking on failure that is perceptive, metaphorical, and personal. Failure manifests here as the tense face-off between reality and expectation, as a gradual downward slump, as a meandering line unable to reach its target. It is the feeling of one’s head heavy against the ground, powerless against the wanderings of mind and body. It is the hole one falls into upon digging it.
And yet it is also just a temporary bout of short-sightedness—nothing serious—which dissipates once the context changes. At that point, one suddenly sees the entire drawing, instead of just the lines that comprise it.
—Alexandra Zsigmond

Contributor Bios 

ALEXIS BEAUCLAIR is a French artist who illustrates for international newspapers and magazines. He self-publishes comics through his risograph workshop Papier Machine, which he co-founded in 2012. 

ALICIA DESANTIS is a graphics editor at The New York Times. She has a Ph.D. in literature from Columbia University and teaches visual narrative in the graduate program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. 

JOANNA FIDUCCIA is a Brooklyn-based art critic and historian, and a doctoral candidate in the department of Art History at UCLA. She writes for publications including Parkett, Artforum, and Spike Art Quarterly

LUC FRANKEN is a freelance copywriter and translator, and a full-time art lover and collector, living in Antwerp, Belgium. 

JONATHON KEATS is an artist, writer, and experimental philosopher. He is currently developing projects at Arizona State University, the Nevada Museum of Art, and the LACMA Art + Technology Lab. 

ROMAN MURADOV is an award-winning illustrator and the author of Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art. Recently he illustrated the centennial edition of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for Penguin Classics. 

ANDERS NILSEN is a graphic novelist and illustrator. He is the author of Big Questions, Poetry is Useless, and The End, among other works. He lives in Portland, Oregon. 

ARIANNA VAIRO is an Italian illustrator, visual artist, and printmaking professor, based in Milan. 

PING ZHU is an illustrator in Brooklyn. This is the most abstract drawing she has ever made. Her less abstract (and colorful) work has been for the New Yorker, The New York Times, and Instagram. 

ALEXANDRA ZSIGMOND is an art director for The New York Times’ Opinion section. She curates illustration exhibitions, travels internationally giving talks on art direction, and has judged numerous illustration competitions. 

JO ANN NOTARIS ZSIGMOND is Alexandra’s mother. She is also a former stockbroker, of Greek heritage, and is the oldest contributor at 72: all fruitful arenas for observing failure. 

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