Similarly, when Hellicar & Lewis worked on one of its first projects, a projection mapping show in Australia’s Auckland, the timing given by the client was so tight it didn’t leave them time to fail. The first rehearsal was between 4-7am, as the main interactive areas had to be built in the road. Despite the fact that the project as a whole was a big success, the opening night was full of issues.
“It wasn’t just the interaction, we had to consider the whole stage management side: how to introduce the interaction to people, how to get people to flow through it and feel a part of it,” says Pete. “ We had to learn while it was going on, and that isn’t ideal. You kind of want to go there and have it all in the bag.”
Tireless hard work, keeping a gracious attitude, but also knowing your limits were the essential traits that Hellicar leaned from the project. “It’s best to be honest,” believes Pete. “Part of your job as a pro in this field is to say: ‘No, I can’t do that in the time’. You may feel professional going ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes’, but not being able to deliver at the end makes you look crap. It’s a hard lesson.”
Simon agrees: “There’s no point in trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. It will come back to bite. We have been in several situations where we have lost a pitch because we went in with strong opinions and these didn’t tally with what the client was looking for. But we have later had a call to ask if we would like to work on a bigger, more interesting project with them due to the ideas and approach we pitched with.”
But when you have put all your time, creativity and love into a project, it’s difficult to play the long game. As Kyle van Blerk, creative director at The Hub, points out, the best creative work is usually a product of people that are emotionally engaged in it. “It’s striking this delicate balance between caring and loving for your work, but not being destroyed emotionally every time you encounter negative feedback,” he says.
“The best way to survive in this industry is to learn to kill your darlings,” he adds, “because you will be killing them, and regularly. It’s only the Francis Bacons and Lucien Freuds of this world that can work in a feedback-free vacuum. The rest of us, unfortunately, have to learn to live with rejection.”
Building rejection into your everyday working practice, as Brighton-based studio Crush Creative has done, is one way of getting over the emotional and professional upset of feeling like you’ve failed. At Crush, every member of the team is asked to talk though their ideas with the whole team on a regular basis, toughening them to criticism and meaning that thought processes are thoroughly worked through. Its creative director Carl Rush says: “You start to think: ‘If someone is going to reject this work, then they will need a good reason!’ All this rejection and failure means that your design has to be watertight and mean something. You need to be able to defend your work, stand by it and believe in it.”
But sometimes, no matter how hard you try to prevent it, a project doesn’t work out. Perhaps you’re not seeing eye-to-eye with the client, maybe the brief is unreasonable or isn’t inspiring you and the result is sub-par work that has made you or your client unhappy. How do you know when to cut your losses and just drop the project?
“There’s no easy answer,” says Cog Design’s Michael Smith, “but I try to weigh the potential damage or enhancement to our reputation against the potential cost of salvaging the project. Reputation is more valuable than any financial implication, but there are some projects that can’t be saved, so it’s better to admit that as early as possible so your client can make alternative plans.”
Moving on from this stage relies on both the strength of the relationship with your client and how much effort you’re willing to put in to win more work from them. “If your relationship was a good one, you’ll probably find there’s a degree of understanding,” explains d.studio’s Phil, “but if the relationship wasn’t there to start with, the chances are the client won’t come back for more whatever you try to do. As long as you can hold your head high, knowing you’ve done the best you can do and have been professional about the situation, then you won’t burn any bridges.”
Tom adds: “Unless you actually did massively fuck up, a failed project can be the groundwork for another one. The client isn’t always wrong when deciding your work isn’t suitable, so in that case you listen, learn and stay in touch with each other.”
“It’s easy to be a designer when it goes right,” adds James. “When it goes wrong, a good designer manages to fix it, a great designer makes sure they learn from it.”