4 Ways I Was a Massive Failure: Design Edition

By: Ryan Mowery

If you’re not screwing up, you’re not taking risks. If you aren’t taking risks, you’re likely not growing. This is true for design as much as any other endeavor, from entrepreneurship to teaching. In an effort to embrace and celebrate failures, let’s talk about them.

First, I must acknowledge that this idea was stolen from inspired by Nina Geometrieva’s post. Also by author Tina Seelig and her concept of a failure resume.

Like them, I’m sharing some fails. I’d like to hear yours.

Fail 1: I stopped being detail oriented.

The story:

It was crunch time at the end of a project. My client was preparing for their restaurant’s grand opening. I was finishing up their printed collateral and preparing to send it off.

I exported everything for print, placed an overnight rush order, and called it a day.

The next morning, the client called to ask where the materials were. I checked the tracking information and found my mistake.

I had shipped everything to the wrong address.

During the checkout process a shipping field auto-filled with a different address. I was moving quickly and didn’t notice the error.

After apologizing, I set out to find the packages. Luckily, I had shipped everything to my client’s home address and they were able to quickly pick everything up.

Deep sigh of relief.

My client wasn’t upset and everything worked out smoothly in the end.

Lessons learned:

  • I need to quadruple check everything before I sign off on it. This applies to everything I do now: email, design decisions, project requirements, spelling, shipping addresses, contracts. Everything.
  • Be honest and transparent when things go wrong. I could have blamed the shipping company, the printing company, or thrown a co-worker under the bus. Instead I owned my error. This kept the trust strong between me and the client. We even had a good laugh about it later.
Fail 2: I focused on the idea instead of the outcome.

The story:

For a responsive web project, I pushed for a design that hid the primary navigation in a hamburger menu.

The client’s complex product offering cluttered the homepage experience. I thought my concept perfectly represented what the client and their users wanted.

I liked my idea, and believed it was the ideal solution. Other designers on my team advocated for an exposed navigation, but I insisted on my original design. I did research that backed up my point of view and settled on it being great.

Then, reality hit.

Usability testing showed people struggling with the navigation. As much as I loved it, I needed to let go of my idea. We adjusted the site’s primary navigation. Then the usability tests showed greater comprehension and ease of use.

Lessons learned:

  • My ideas are not all diamonds and I can’t treat them as if they are precious.
  • Testing early can help remove any assumptions you might have about an idea.
  • Visual design won’t cure information architecture issues. Rather than hiding their complex menu, I should have reorganized the IA and menu structure.
Fail 3: I let fear dictate design decisions.

The story:

In the beginning stages of a project, I decided to try a slightly unorthodox approach for one of my design concepts. The concept was fun to work on and had a lot of opportunities.

Before I presented to the larger group, I became anxious and hesitant. I was afraid that the concept was too out-of-the-box and that the client and my team would think I wasn’t listening to the objectives.

I decided against showing it and instead pitched a safer, more conventional idea.

In that meeting, another designer presented a “crazier” concept, that was a lot like my original idea. Everyone loved it. It sparked conversation internally and inspired our client. Their “crazy” concept was chosen and ultimately became the basis for the final product.

Lessons learned:

  • Playing it safe will not make your work very interesting.
  • Take chances in the concepting phase. The first couple deliverables set the tone and expectations for the entire project. If you don’t try to push the boundaries there, you won’t be able to push them at any point in the project. Generally, clients and co-workers don’t like when expectations aren’t consistent.
Fail 4: I took feedback personally.

The story:

Late in the holiday season I was asked to create a holiday card for my agency.

With a rushed timeline, I created something that I believed fulfilled all the requirements and was ready to go. I wasn’t very proud of the work, but given the time constraints, I thought it was satisfactory.

During the design review, I was told the card wasn’t working and I needed to rethink it.

It felt like a mistake. I thought: Maybe I didn’t pitch it right?

I argued again that it was, in fact, good enough. A coworker and I went back and forth about the design, which created tension. All parties felt dissatisfied with the review. I was a competent designer and knew what I was talking about, right? It had to be a mistake.

In reality, I had taken the comments about my design personally instead of professionally.

Once my head cleared and—more importantly—I had a better attitude, I went back to work redesigning the card. I pushed myself and found new and better ideas.

My second draft was something I was genuinely proud of. So much so, that even though this was several years ago, and I still have a copy of the card in my files at home.

Lessons learned:

  • Arguing about feedback is never the appropriate path.
  • Being pushed to do better work isn’t a signal that someone thinks you’re a bad designer. It is a signal that they think you’re capable of greatness.
  • As designers we often try to control everything. That’s not possible. When someone doesn’t understand your intent or your idea, it can be tempting to take a defensive stance.

What is the point of talking about all of this?
I am a better designer today because of my failures, not in spite of them.

Owning these mistakes has helped me grow past them, both emotionally and intellectually. Accepting responsibility for a mistake is rough, but it is always necessary. Improving in your craft comes from understanding your own imperfections and learning from where you missed the mark. It does not come from mercilessly chasing perfection.

Illustrations by Visual Designer Becca Charlier-Matthews.