Beautiful Accidents

It must be 12 years ago now. I was living in Allston “Rock City”, playing guitar in a shoe-gazing instrumental indie rock trio. My G string broke. No, not that G string (not that kind of band). Out of extra strings, I managed to find a D string lying on the rehearsal room floor. I strung it on and kept playing. See, a D string is wound steel, and thicker than a G string, which is a single strand. But winding it tighter and tighter, I was able to tune it back up to a G.

From that day on, I exclusively played with two D strings (one tuned to G) instead of a normal set of guitar strings. It changed the way I played, changed the sound and timbre of my setup. It became a part of the DNA that made up whatever it was we were creating.

It’s been happening throughout history, of course. Beautiful accidents. Unintentional intentions. We can’t plan these mistakes, but wish we could. What seems like disaster, turns into the spark that ignites what we perceive later as “rightly so”.

And it happens all the time when I’m designing. Oops, I dumped a white paint can where color used to be. Wait. That’s nice. It’s become a part of my process. A part I can’t anticipate, or account for, but a part nonetheless.

I’ve been thinking about ways to facilitate these accidents. Make them happen more often. I haven’t come up with anything yet. Too much coffee, not enough coffee, time of day, etc.—are they really accidents, or our subconscious guiding the way?

Until I figure out, I’ll keep adapting, accepting and discovering.


  1. paul says:

    that’s not a bad idea – i find on les pauls the g-string breaks more than 10x more than any other string because of the physic’s of the shape of the headstock apparently. the best discoveries i’m sure are the result of “happy accidents”.

  2. Todd Austin says:

    Beautiful accidents, or happy accidents as I’ve called them, have steered many things in my life. Meeting my wife and falling into a career I love, have been the results of these “Beautiful Accidents”. Here’s to many more…

  3. Luke Dorny says:

    On the rare occasion that an accident is “happy” it is definitely an moment worth celebrating. Intensely.
    Sometimes we let these events just wash by us. We should enjoy and share these occurances, as they can be rare and sometimes subtle and unnoticed.
    Great post.

  4. Jeff says:

    I just stumbled across this post by accident. Now I am in love with you. I feel beautiful.

  5. Jason Robb says:

    Awesome. Did the idea for this post happen by accident as well?
    How often has it happened though? Dozens of times. I have this wooden/yarn piece of art I made. After wrapping the yarn too tightly, it’s bowed the wooden frame. It’s taken on a very unusual form.
    When asked about it, my first response was “it happened by accident.” To which I was told, “Hey, you should keep that to yourself.”
    Perhaps it’s a matter of being too proud to admit. I think it shows humility to admit when something was a pleasant surprise, and arose out of thin air.
    Rock on in your humble ways, sir.

  6. Phillip says:

    Well written sir and I have actually never really thought of a beautiful accident.
    Nice way to start the weekend with a good thought provoking article from Simplebits.
    Great article!! One of those that makes you grin right before calling it a day. Accident? Who knows!

  7. This happens to me all the time too. I used to think it just sort of occurred, but after awhile I realized that it happened most when I wasn’t afraid of failing or messing something up. By opening myself up to the possibility of failure, it made me play and experiment more. I also remember as a kid watching Bob Ross, he called these “Happy Accidents” :)

  8. There’s definitely something to be said for random slips of the paint can. These moments are the best part of the work day; happy accidents can turn enraged Dan back to ecstatic Dan without warning.
    Beautifully written.

  9. Rob L. says:

    Classic post, Dan. Are there any tracks posted online from that band? Now that you’ve described your personal twist on guitar-stringing, I’m dying to hear how it sounded.

  10. Naz Hamid says:

    I call this The Beautiful Mistake. Randomness that happens to create something better. It used to happen to me a lot when playing music then happened when I started to move away from traditional art into design. Occasionally I hope for a beautiful mistake more than actual inspiration.

  11. Joop Vos says:

    Only fear dies!

  12. There’s a special word for these happy, beautiful accidents: serendipity. A beautiful word in its own right, don’t you think?

  13. Doug says:

    The best way to create these accidents is just to continue creating. I know you are a fan of Guided by Voices, you post above essentially was their recording and song writing technique.
    Bob’s entire catalog is filled with beautiful accidents. Pushing the norm aside and trying it their own way. Why not push the amp over while you are recording? Why not have your wife scream on a track. Tape hiss and pops as instrument and not annoyance.
    His method starts with misunderstanding a sign, a saying etc. Writing it down in his notebook and then later using those little info bites in a collage or a song.
    Most of the titles of the early work came from looking through his high school yearbooks and giving each person a name (I am a scientist, mincer ray, kicker of elves ect)
    Developing your own method, creating and not being afraid of failure (not every accident is beautiful and being ok with that) are the keys.

  14. Jeremy Osborn says:

    I often think these moments are harder to come by in the digital world than they are in the real world. To encourage these moments with beginning designers, I always remind them to take advantage of the digital format and use the “save as” command to encourage multiple versions. I’ve seen too many of these beautiful accidents disappear.

  15. Mike says:

    Not knowing what certain settings are of a DSLR camera and taking a wonderful picture is a beautiful accident.

  16. kevinn says:

    You could buy wound 3rd strings now on some custom gauge string sets.
    Sometimes in photoshop… random mistakes or working too fast makes me unintended pressing on the ctrl/alt and or shift keys while using the brush/pencil tools, and sometimes they do make wonders.

  17. Matt Robin says:

    Hey Dan, you are referring to the classic ‘Eureka’ moments! :)
    Purposely trying to force such incidents to happen would probably rob them of their random brilliance, the moment of surprise – so maybe it’s not a good idea to try and make them happen directly. Best way this can happen to you again is to keep an open mind at all times – the unexpected happens a lot but it takes focus to see it happen at all. Shit, that makes me sound like Yoda – right: back to the coffee for me! :D

  18. Jacob S says:

    I agree 100%. I think that one thing that “frees” me up to have happy accidents is to give myself enough time to let them happen. Due dates, while unavoidable most of the time, can stifle accidents because I get “tight” and in a “gotta’-get-it-done” mode.
    Great post, thanks.

  19. Kirk says:

    i don’t think it’s a matter of facilitating them as much as it is an exercise in being open to the idea that what we commonly perceive to be wrong is in fact just another ‘way’, or possibility. We become so task oriented that if we start to feel we’re falling outside of the boundaries of the task we instinctively attempt to ‘right’ ourselves rather than consider the possibilities.

  20. MichalT says:

    I think all ideas, great and silly alike, are discovered by an accident. Actually, I can’t see how it could be otherwise.

  21. MichalT says:

    And the only way I know to cause those happy accidents to happen is by being open-minded and experimenting a lot in a playful way.

  22. @Rob L.
    Are there any tracks posted online from that band?
    I’m reluctant to post, but indeed there are :)

  23. Dan says:

    That’s pretty cool how you can manage life, family, lecturing, and a band without going nuts. I also see why you were so reluctant to post… the band page looks (and is coded) pretty bad.

  24. A similar thing happened to me in my photography style. I broke a strobe light and replaced it with a hot light and got a nice mix of color and movement.
    I now try to bust out of the norm and try something different every time I shoot, always on the look out for the next happenstance of creativity.

  25. Bryan Veloso says:

    This post pretty much explains my life. I’ve been trying to control them, but I guess that’s just the nature of the happy accident. :)

  26. @Dan: Nope, haven’t managed playing in a band in over 10 years. Sadly no time for that now.
    But also, I wasn’t reluctant to post the link because of the design and/or code that was done by my pal probably 10 years ago. Just wanted to clarify that.

  27. Rob L. says:

    Thanks for posting the link, Dan — I’m enjoying these tracks.

  28. Johannes says:

    When the idea goes to code add a .happyAccident on the design element in question. Actually isn’t there a happy accident tag in HTML 5?
    Great post.

  29. @uhhhhhh Where were you 12 years ago?

  30. Mel Rodicq says:

    I think this is the ‘source’ where all true creativity springs from. When i look back at my best work, on the whole it’s occurred as an ‘accident’. Certainly you can help the process along – keep yourself inspired. I tend to find that the real world (as opposed to browsing so-called inspirations sites) fire me up the most. Libraries,galleries,people,the weather – on a good day I’m inspired by everything.
    I guess the worry is that these accidents stop one day.. I suppose that would be ‘designers block’!
    Great post anyway, given me food for thought..
    Mel from Mels Brushes (design stock and freebies)

  31. So Dan… is there any chance we get to hear how this guitar setup works?
    Short 30 seconds riff per chance?
    Great article and well written.
    If my strings weren’t new, I’d go rip them off and restring.