January blues: designers reflect on their most painful past projects

The first month of the year is anecdotally known nationwide as the most depressing one, with its bad weather, short days and notoriously unforgiving pay cheques. In light of this, designers tell us about the most distressing projects they have ever worked on.

Angela Drinkall, partner, Drinkall Dean

“One project still depresses me. In 2008, one of our first ever projects was a dream commission for a large permanent gallery in India. We dug deep to come up with a new façade of decorative brick based on traditional pattern that was also augmented with a huge light-emitting diode (LED) digital presentation, visible on the main commuter route that passed metres away.

Both these ideas failed to see the light as they were deemed inappropriate or unachievable, and we were gutted. Fast-forward and Damien Hirst’s fabulous Newport Street Gallery showcases a massive LED screen visible as you approach Waterloo. Then last year, Yves Saint Laurent opened a museum in Marrakesh, Morocco, with a façade made of culturally-inspired, decorative brick patterns. It looks stunning — sadly.”


Katie Cadwallader, senior designer, Supple Studio

“Depressing is a strong word, and while I might associate it with this month and this final stretch towards lighter evenings and heavier pockets, it’s not one I would ever relate to my work (thankfully). When I’m feeling low, and in the mood for some self-sabotage, I delve into the part of the studio server where no-one strays by accident.

All the projects that might have been, the concepts that never saw the light of day, the ideas brimming with potential that didn’t make the podium. The projects where the clients were so damning in their opinions that opening the PDFs is like volunteering for paper cuts. And of course, that sub-folder we all have — those rare, few ideas that are filed under ‘never paid the invoice so doesn’t deserve us’”.


Tessa Simpson, designer, O Street

“The most depressing project was thankfully one that eventually fell through. Reworking a brand for a private equity manager was never high on my list anyway and with a client whose football allegiances firmly dictated the available options for the colour palette, there were red flags from the start. After a few gruelling months of designing, redesigning and dealing with an obnoxious boss who had a tendency to ignore his female employees and bully his male employees, we had to call it. Walking away was a good shout but left us grumbling over work unpaid and time wasted for a few months following!”


Vicky Bullen, CEO, Coley Porter Bell

“For me, the most depressing ones are those that you pour love, effort and excitement into, only to have them go nowhere. We did one last year for a major FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) business. It was a fantastic life-changing product, with a true social purpose. The brief was strategy, name and identity. All in all, it was a designer’s dream. We pitched, won, used an exciting design sprint methodology and had great work we were really proud of… only for client priorities to change, and the launch to be pulled. Even more depressingly, we had made considerable investment because the budget was small and we wanted the story to grow our business with that client. We ended up minus profit and minus case history.”


Dave Dunlop, creative director and partner, Else

“It was many years ago — I’d not long made a big career change from working in a small music-based design studio to a large global digital firm. We’d had an incredibly exciting project in, which was very different for a lot of the people who were working on it. It was a large-scale design and build for a big media company. I felt I could bring lots to it and perhaps it might get me noticed in the firm.

We all brought new ideas and ways we could deliver the project to the table. It also became clear that most of what we needed to do was customised, and that it really required more points of view than just open-ended creative thinking.

Reality soon hit that the budget was not going to stretch — it had been sold low. We should have limited our ideas. There were technology limitations on what we wanted to do. Some new faces came in — management was watching. We’d all failed.

For me, it threw up renewed challenges about how we could solve it, which ended up being positive. But it also showed me that nothing should be left to chance; that design (especially digital) really is team-play. What had started as an exciting project of possibilities had become a very bad place to be.

It ended up taking an age to close out and I felt a huge responsibility for it; but I learned so much. It was an invaluable experience. In bad times, you often learn the most.”


Greg Quinton, creative director, Superunion

“We’ve worked on many challenging projects over the years: ones that looked at autism, mental illness, cancer and heart disease are just a few that come to mind. They are all wrenching.

However, we are currently working with The International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) highlighting its work in the lead up to International Women’s Day in March. As part of which, the team shared some of photographer Christopher Thomas’ images from his ‘Female’ series, featuring women in India and Bangladesh who have been victims of acid and burn attacks as forms of domestic and societal abuse. How one person can deliberately abuse another in this way is deeply shocking.

Never before has the need for continued advocacy for women’s human rights been quite so brutally and violently obvious.

It’s distressing to think that this type of thing still happens around the world, but it’s also empowering to see the strength of these women shining through despite adversity. Sometimes, even though it’s hard, you have to face unpleasant truths in order for us all to overcome them.

We look forward to a kinder world (and hopefully a more cheerful year).”


What’s the most distressing or emotionally difficult project you’ve ever worked on? Let us know in the comments below.

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