10 Things to Learn From Failure

We’ve all had them – the dreaded unsuccessful or failed project – and we’ve all had to bounce back. From graphics busts to web disasters, some good can come from projects you’d rather forget. Even big companies, such as Gap with a logo change and subsequent reversal in early 2011, have had to deal with design snafus.

Start the recovery process by taking a minute to figure out what went wrong and then make a resolution to gain something from the process. Learn how to improve yourself, your team and your next project. Although you should not dwell on it too long, here are 10 things you can learn from failed projects.

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1. Accept Credit and Criticism

It is usually easy to take credit for projects that turn out as planned but a little tougher to accept the critical comments that come with failure. How you handle these conversations will build the framework for your next project with the same client. Smile and accept criticism with the same poise you would handle credit.

If a project fails, ask for feedback. Understanding what did not work and why can help you develop as a designer and improve your skills for the next project.

2. Determine What Went Wrong

Make a short list of both things that worked and those that did not over the course of a project. Can you pinpoint where things went wrong? Was the timeline too short? Were the parameters or client’s wishes unclear?

Sometimes there is no clear answer here and you just have to move on. Further, design can be very much a matter of taste and sometimes a designer and client fail to get on the same page with a project. You could consider the project some of your best work while it does not meet the client’s needs at all.

3. Communication is Key


Start each project by building a relationship with everyone involved. Make sure to keep communication channels open so that all ideas are discussed and understood among everyone working on the project. Make your clients know your work style and have seen some of your previous projects before you get started. Discuss both parties’ needs and make sure your styles gel before you start a project.

Often when projects don’t come together, you can track some of the issue back to lack of understanding and communication. Think about how information was communicated during each phase of an unsuccessful project: Were all the details clearly stated?

Use all the tools at your disposal – email, visuals and make sure to get away from your desk and talk to clients face-to-face. Show them how the project is coming along before you get to the final product.

4. The Client is Always Right

Projects-for-pay are not about your ego. To ensure success, you must build/design what is wanted by someone else. You may have the better eye for what looks best, but you can’t always be right. You can explain why something works but in the end, concede to the client’s wishes.

5. Revise, Revise, Revise


Like Rome, good design is not built in a day. Rarely does your first sketch look like a finished project. Continue working and evaluating. Many times failed projects end up falling apart because of time constraints, tight or missed deadlines and the lack of revision that results from the two.

Provide clients with multiple options for a project design. Working up only one idea will put you in a like it or leave it situation; you are likely to find more success with several plans.

Look at the subtle, but noticeable, differences in versions of the Blake Allen Design website. Items such as logo and branding are static (in design but not size) while things such as use of color vary. The site also changed from more of a minimalist theme with lots of open spaces to a more filled, symmetrical layout.

6. Manage Your Time

Time management is one of the most important skills you will develop. Think of it this way. You just finished a project you loved and the client loved but you spent three times the allotted schedule on it. As a freelancer, you would have failed because you spent a disproportionate time-to-fee ratio. In other words, you aren’t making money on the project.

Look at how you spent your hours. Track your time by logging what you are doing and how long it takes. What you may discover is that you are underestimating your time to complete a project of that you got distracted by other things while working – Facebook, email and Twitter are common culprits. Use this information to replan your work habits.

7. Beat Deadlines


Finish early. Give clients a preview of what you are working on. Plan some time in for additional changes.

By beating deadlines, you can eliminate the element of surprise that comes with turning in an unseen project at the last minute. You are giving yourself more leeway to retool certain elements, such as colors, fonts or even overall makeup. Revise, revise, revise (see No. 5).

8. Research More

Part of your design work isn’t really design at all. Did you fully understand your project before drawing out the first sketches? Did you grasp what the client envisioned?

Do your homework. Read about your client. Look at their past published design projects. What were the themes, color schemes and font selections? Did the client like the result or do they want a dramatic change? Find out why. Understanding where they have been with their look can help you understand what direction is sought during your project.

9. Push the Limits

People and businesses can get comfortable in what they know. The same is true for designers. It is likely that your work has a signature item – a look, a color or an effect. Push yourself to try something new.

But also do the same for the client. They chose you to do the work for a reason. Work with the client to help them also select a visual that is a little more edgy than they are used to. Create visuals that are not replicas of past projects while maintaining consistent elements that identify branding and identity.

Calculated design risks can pay off but they are also called risks for a reason. Understand the potential benefits and costs from the start. Pushing a client too far can result in a damaged or even broken relationship. Pushing each others’ limits should be a collaborative process. But don’t be pushy with an idea that you are unwilling to change or develop further.

10. Try Again

Sometimes we just fail. The reasons may be many, or few or unknown. Accept it. Move on.

Salvage what you can for the next project. Sometimes you create something that gets thrown out in the revision process (or altogether in some cases) and it would have a great use elsewhere. Did you develop a great color palette or set of style sheets for a website? File those items away for use later. There is no point in starting from scratch again when you have some of the parts right there that might work in your next project.


Don’t get too discouraged when a project does not work out. Failure is a part of everything and no matter how many successes you have, at some point you will encounter face dealing with an unsuccessful design project.

Try to take lessons away that will make your next project more successful. Getting feedback and setting aside a little time for personal and design evaluation can help you with the next project. Don’t argue or dwell on mistakes or matters of taste. Focus on the things you can change and do better the next time around.

How do you deal with failure? Share your tips for learning from it with us.

Image Sources: shoesfullofdust, and Betchaboy.