Sometimes I worry that people don't see failure as an important part of success.
Behind every achievement is a string of failures, big and small, that help us learn. Because of the far-flung nature of the origami community, we only see the finished product: in this case, a cute cat design. But the important part, the things we learn from, are the messy sketches, the half-baked first attempts, and the totally-barking-up-the-wrong-tree wild goose chases. Robert Lang's infamous "four-step process" is a good joke precisely because most designs never find such a straightforward path from concept to finish.
I started off wanting to fold a monkey. Beth Johnson had posted a photo on Facebook of her new Spider Monkey design, but was grousing about how she wished it had a longer tail. With no small amount of hubris, I thought, "well let's see if I can adapt her design to graft on a longer tail!" And of course, my first attempt didn't pan out, so I started scrounging around for a different base.
I've always liked the neck of Yoshizawa's "Swivel Monkey", so I started doodling with a fish base to see where it went. The result bore little resemblance to any monkey: the head was the wrong shape, and the arms seemed to come from the belly rather than the shoulders. Also, there really wasn't enough paper to make back legs.
From failure to success
There are two things which turned this failure into a success. The first is that I am sometimes unreasonably stubborn, especially when confronted with a certain kind of challenge. Albert Einstein once said, "It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer," and that's a feeling I think most origami designers will understand.
The second key is to use an imaginative way of seeing. All representational origami, in a sense, depends on our ability to interpret stylized shapes as a subject. When the monkey failed, I didn't just throw it away: I kept it out on my desk, and the next time I sat down to fold, saw it again and realized it might make a good lion, cat, or other feline. When designing, I need this skill to be flexible enough to re-interpret a "failure" so I can see the possibility it might still contain.
When designing, it is a helpful form of self-criticism to observe partial aspects of the subject in progress: Do these legs look more like a pig or a cow? How could the layers in the head be used to suggest a face? Do the leading lines along the body suggest the right shapes for a cat? This approach is related to what Seiji Nishikawa and others have referred to as mitate, a Japanese term describing a form of metaphor where a subject is arranged or described in such a way as to give the impression of something else. Producing a strong impression frequently requires trial and error to balance and tweak the shapes involved.
From that first sketch, it took about a dozen more not-quite-right attempts to sort through different shaping options, pin down references, and refine the folding sequence. The result, hopefully, will speak for itself.