Graphic design is about clarity, communication, and precision – surely there’s no place for chance in the creative process? Not so. An open-minded approach to design means chance can indeed be a fine thing.

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There is no such thing as an accident; it is fate misnamed.” So said Napolean Bonaparte, presumably sometime before he ‘accidentally’ drank one glass too many of arsenic. 
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Whatever one’s views on chance – or cosmology, for that matter – accidents are part and parcel of daily life, and as with life, so with design. 
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For the most part, accidents and errors are usually a result of complexity and precariousness. But just as an entirely predictable life would be dull and uninspiring, a touch of uncertainty can play a role in great graphic design. 
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Grant Bowden, creative director at the London-based agency Deep, <a rel="nofollow" href="http://www.deep.co.uk" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">www.deep.co.uk</a>, argues that when an accident occurs, sometimes it’s best to flow with it: “When you’re in the design process there are simple things – like choosing the wrong font or command – that take you down a different route. But that can only happen if you go into the process with an open mind,” he says. 
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The factor at work here is serendipity, and it’s what separates a happy accident from a disaster. 
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Best described as the act of making an unintentional discovery, serendipity has long played a role not only in the arts, but also in science – Viagra, for example, was originally developed as a treatment for pulmonary hypertension. 
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<h2>Accidental hero</h2>
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If an accident is ever going to have a positive result, one thing is essential: willingness to go with the flow. “You’ve just got to grab it,” says Harry Sutherland- Hawes, creative director at Sutherland- Hawes McClean, <a rel="nofollow" href="http://www.sutherlandhawes.co.uk" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">www.sutherlandhawes.co.uk</a>. 
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There is a good reason for this: any designer lacking such a playful attitude to work, would doubtlessly scrap the results and, literally, go back to the drawing board. 
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Of course, commercial pressures can mean that the more ‘out there’ effects can’t be used in real world work: “Quite often you do something and think ‘God, that’s brilliant. Can’t use it, but it’s brilliant’, so it’s kept and shoved in a drawer somewhere and rummaged through when you’re looking for ideas,” says Sutherland-Hawes. 
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The West London-based consultancy has worked for a variety of high profile clients including GlaxoSmithKline, London Underground, Petro-Canada, Mulberry Hall, and the Foreign Office, many of whom are likely to baulk at the idea of randomness in design – after all, consistent design is promoted by a formal and logical approach to work. 
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But that doesn’t mean that chance is irrelevant, even in disciplined work such as that of Sutherland-Hawes: “We work on quite a few different projects at once, like anybody, and often one job will influence another in some bizarre way,” he says. 
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<h2>Accidentally on purpose</h2>
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Happy accidents in design tend to break down into two fundamental camps: pure error – usually human – and working in a more discursive and open-ended way. 
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Technical and technological problems don’t sound much like a source of good design, but they can be. 
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Errors on the computer are often quite simple and straightforward: “When you try to select a font and grab the wrong one, you can try it out. It can be something as simple as that,” says Deep’s Grant Bowden. 
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At the very least, you will appreciate your original choice if the accidental one doesn’t work, he says. 
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Bowden also feels that in the majority of cases, user error is more interesting than plain technical glitches: “Usually it has to be human error,” he says. 
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The reasoning for this is twofold: firstly, computers don’t make ‘mistakes’ as such, though software and hardware can be faulty or buggy. 
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Secondly, even if a piece of software isn’t functioning correctly, by far the most common outcome is for it to simply crash. 
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That said, Bowden does recall one interesting example of a computer error making its way into work – moving to Mac OS X caused Quark to have redraw problems. 
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“I was working on a magazine and it created white bars and blocks across images. The client saw it and liked it, so we recreated it,” he says. 
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The more complex the software interface, the more likely it is that human error will occur. It should come as no surprise then, that pressing the wrong button is most common in massive and complicated applications such as Photoshop. 
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Even then, though, the mind’s response to what has happened is more important that the act itself. 
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“Photoshop and Illustrator is where things are likely to happen, but even then, although something might accidentally happen, it usually just facilitates the thought process, usually it’s going to happen in your own mind,” says Sutherland-Hawes. 
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“These days I think those opportunities are getting less and less,” he says. “We try and work with paper as much as possible, scribbling ideas, printing stuff out and shuffling it around. 
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“You never know quite what you’ll get – the eye, or the brain I guess, will link things much faster and more randomly. 
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“It’s much less likely to happen if you’re making stuff happen on a computer, unless you happen to press the wrong button or something. 
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“I remember watching a documentary about how they made Finding Nemo. They were asked about the little flecks in the water – motes of dust which you really do see if you go underwater.
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“When you see it, you think ‘that’s amazing, how did that happen?’ and Pixar said: ‘It’s a computer – nothing comes for free. We had to do that.’ It looks like one of those random things that you see but it didn’t just happen. I think that sums up the modern age.” 
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<h2>Fluke of nature</h2>
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It’s a view shared by Nigel Burke, director of Finn William Design, <a rel="nofollow" href="http://www.finnwilliam.com" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">www.finnwilliam.com</a> in Stockton-on-Tees: “As much as I do use a computer 36 hours in the day, I still need the paper to work on. You come back to it as food for thought. 
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“If you work on the screen, the undo button is one of the worst buttons. Once you’ve erased something, it’s gone – you’re just playing with Play-Doh on the screen. You don’t see the journey you made to get to it.” 
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Burke sees the process of generating and collecting random ideas as a hugely useful tool for a designer: “I’ve got paper stacked next to me and I write on it and draw on it. It gives you ideas.” 
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Such a free-wheeling approach is immensely useful, particularly in the idea generation stage because often the best design comes about as a result of heading off on a tangent and pursuing ideas that are a little off-brief. 
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“I don’t know how accident-led it is, but often we try to go off beyond the brief and extend things,” says Grant Bowden.
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“Obviously, your clients have come to you for something. It adds value to your client because you do what they ask for and also show them alternatives.” 
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Nigel Burke explains that at Finn William Design he likes to keep ideas flowing fast and consider things as widely as possible: “We’ve just got a whiteboard in and the stuff that goes on that – a mark here and a mark there – it feeds ideas.”
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Another aspect of uncertainty in design – usually unwelcome – is other people’s errors. Printers often play the role of fall guy or foil to designers, taking the blame for anything that goes wrong. 
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Often there’s a good reason for this, but if something comes back not looking quite how it was intended, it’s not always necessary to reject it out of hand. 
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According to Grant Bowden, it is worth considering that chance can play an interesting part in design, even at the proofing stage. 
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“Sometimes when you get something back from the printers at wet proof stage, it’s not quite what you intended, but you decide to keep it in anyway,” he says. 
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Never mind printing firms, even inkjet printers can be a source of uncertainty in design, especially for clients: “We did a test with a printer which produces amazing images and colours, but when you take this onto press, the press often can’t manage it. What the client sees at the ideas stage can be brighter than the final job,” warns Bowden. 
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Ultimately, risk and uncertainty are unavoidable and not all chance occurrences will be positive, but when they happen it’s always worth considering them. “I’m a believer that things happen for a reason,” says Nigel Burke. Perhaps Napolean was right all along.
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<h2>How to handle accidents</h2>
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Not all accidents can be described as serendipitous. In fact, some are just plain alarming. Here are Digit’s tips on what to do if you think all is lost:
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<b>Step back from the screen</b> <BR>
Stay calm and take a few breaths. Things probably aren’t as bad as you think. Take a look at what has happened and consider whether or not it works in and of itself, even if it wasn’t quite what was intended.
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<b>Undo</b><BR>
The ‘undo’ function is there for a reason. If things go bad, undo is a lifeline that allows you to get back to where you were before. 
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<b>Finish it, then start again</b> <BR>
Just keep going with the flow. When you’ve finished the ‘flawed’ design, go back to the point of departure and complete it again as it was intended. 
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By doing this you can directly compare and contrast and make an informed qualitative judgment. You may even want to show the alternative version to the client. 
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<b>Save it, but move on</b><BR>
OK, not only was it not what you wanted, it also doesn’t work, but that doesn’t mean that you should dump it in the bin. 
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Design is about context and what doesn’t work for one client may work well for another, so keep copies of all of the dead-ends that you find yourself coming across – they may not seem quite so useless in a month’s time. 
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<h2>Exploring design</h2> 
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<b>City Bunker</b> 
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Finn William Design’s work for City Bunker, an urban golf simulation venue in Canary Wharf, came about through having an open approach to work and letting the ideas flow. 
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Director of Finn William Nigel Burke says the project started with a golf pro that he knew from London. 
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“It was a wide open brief. He said, ‘Nige, we need some ideas on an identity that reflects where we’re at. We’re looking at a city gent and a golf image’,” he says. 
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“At first we came up with the name City Bunker. We did some ideas and then they got some investors involved with the project and they all said ‘We need this pink element in it.’ We worked from that.” 
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Having such an open brief is not without its problems, but it does bring an element of chance into the process: “They weren’t quite sure what they wanted,” he says, pointing out that exploration was central to the development of the design. 
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“It was an open-ish brief at the beginning and what we gave them fuelled their ideas.” <a rel="nofollow" href="http://www.citybunker.co.uk" rel="nofollow" target="_blank">www.citybunker.co.uk</a> 
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<h2>The learning instinct</h2> 
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Serendipity is a process that can be learnt – or at least facilitated. The key to this is having an open mind about the possibilities that occur unexpectedly. “I think it’s intuitive,” says Harry Sutherland-Hawes. 
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“You don’t ‘know’, you recognize it when it happens, you capture it and you’re back on the process again.” 
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Temperament plays a major part in this, as Nigel Burke recalls: “Our lecturer at college was an old-school typographer. He worked at such a slow pace. He was extremely precise about everything. When you worked on a project with him it wasn’t a loose, free style. 
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“His son took over the typography side of things, brought in a computer and his work was completely different. He was running about the room, ‘do this, do that, that’s fantastic, explore this’. It was from one pole to another,” he says. 
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Accidents and mistakes have much in common, but the best way to approach things is to consider the two concepts as separate. 
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A mistake is unwelcome, but who is to say that an accident isn’t going to produce a better result than the original idea? “It’s like fate – it works in mysterious ways,” says Burke. 
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