“When I looked at my sent emails, I knew I was fired”: designers’ biggest mistakes

Last week the Museum of Failure opened in Sweden, which is archiving global design and innovation failures including the Segway and a frozen beef lasagne from Colgate. We ask designers about their most memorable work-related disasters.

Jack Renwick, creative director, Jack Renwick Studio

“I remember facing the wrath of a client, who upon receiving a packaged artwork folder picked up the phone and let me know in no uncertain terms that she was ‘not impressed’. I had forwarded on the file without checking the link folder and when I looked at what I’d sent I knew I was fired. All the image files in the folder had the art workers’ ‘working titles’ and hadn’t been replaced as the project had progressed – so the list of photos of the client and her team read: ‘grumpy old cow’, ‘ugly fat man’, ‘facelift woman’… Argh! However, her photo said ‘skinny woman’ and she was quite happy with that, so we agreed not to tell my boss and I lived to go on and make many more blunders.”

Paul Bailey, founder, Brand In Process

“Maybe 10 years ago at 1977 Design we decided that if we only ever charged for our time there was a limit to what we could earn, as there’s only so many hours in a day. Our solution to this was to approach two very well-known clients to partner on a range of co-branded products, for which we would receive a percentage of each unit sale rather than any upfront fee. In doing this we learned two things – firstly, using two sets of intellectual property takes up a considerable amount of any profit and secondly, it doesn’t matter how great the product is if it isn’t marketed or promoted heavily (this was the days before social media). So why was this a failure? We made around £40.”

Matt Baxter, Baxter and Bailey
Matt Baxter, creative director, Baxter and Bailey

“My most current and up-to-date failure is agreeing to a Design Week deadline the morning after the Design Week Awards. I can barely gather the will to type, and spellcheck is propping me up like a war-grizzled comrade-in-arms. Thinking – briefly – a little more lucidly, my biggest failure as a designer isn’t a poorly built website, a shoddily constructed exhibition or a fatally flawed piece of print (though I confess to some or all of the above). It’s a bit bigger and broader than that; a failure of focus. Once upon a time, I’d say ‘yes’ to pretty much any project or client, regardless of sector, size or ethical stance. I’ve learned from experience that a more considered, tailored and pragmatic approach to the kinds of jobs we take on is better for me and our business. We’re more focused and in control of our destiny as a result, and happier too.”

Jenny Theolin, creative partner, Studio Theolin

“This was actually a difficult question for me to answer. I say that because
my failures are so regular that they are a part of how I work, and therefore aren’t that remarkable. When failures aren’t registered as a bad thing, but are part of the creative process, it makes it difficult to pinpoint any big ones. I do stupid stuff sometimes, like accidentally using toothpaste instead of face lotion (yep, that happened) but in terms of work there’s not that much. I guess the biggest learning experience from ‘falling off the horse’ is my career as a whole, and how it keeps pivoting. So biggest learning? Firstly, don’t be so goal-orientated, love the process just as much. And secondly, be honest from the get go, embrace failing as part of the process – and I promise, you’ll get to ride into the sunset.”

Spencer Buck, co-founder, Taxi Studio

“All modesty aside, I’m excellent at failing. There are plenty of examples to choose from in my 20+ years as a creative practitioner. But my biggest failure to date was being too afraid to fail. Worse than that; not rising above failure when failure occurred. Be that a pitch gone wrong, award-winning work killed off by bureaucracy, clients being seduced away to ‘greener grass’; the list goes on. Not being afraid to fail was a painful process to get my head around. It started with me realising that our industry is largely opinion-based. And much like sphincters, everyone’s got one and some of them stink.”

Jason Glenister, creative director, Unicorn XP

“My epic catastrophe happened in the late 1990s while art director on a launch video for a girl group. Sadly, for all concerned (especially me) the final piece of video was universally hated by the heads of the record label. The reason? We showed the girl group as it was. They looked good, but there was no story or brand to buy into – no fantasy for fans to get behind. The lesson learnt? You need a brand before you can sell a product. And if there is nothing unique to say, then damn well make it up.”

What’s your biggest failure as a designer? Let us know in the comments section below.

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  • Megan June 20, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    This article has been amazing to read!! I regularly struggle with feeling of failure in my design, or that I’m not gonna ever get it right, so it is very encouraging to see how successful designers also struggle with the diversely-opinionated industry.
    My biggest failure is feeling like I’m failing, then losing my temper about it, which just makes it worse and miserable. But a learning curve, just trust the process, thank you Jenny Theoline. As Joseph Chilton Pearce said: “…lose our fear of being wrong”. And once you do that and just it let go it really flows.

  • Nomad Print January 19, 2019 at 4:26 pm

    with design and printing with me is undercharging badly, due to i’m still an early start up buisness, you soon realise your honesty to pricing “reasonable” to you but constantly under cutting yourself in the process!

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