Fail fast: how to succeed by failing

Failure is ever-present in the design industry, but by adopting the ‘fail fast’ strategy, you’ll be able to quickly adapt as it progresses and create the best-possible outcome.

Unfortunately, when designers hit the headlines, it’s normally due to a massive cock-up. Websites that cost £100,000 and then don’t load properly, new brand names that mean ‘prostitute’ in Spanish slang and, of course, logos that bear an unfortunate resemblance to cartoon characters doing inappropriate things – the list is endless.

Luckily for most, failure is usually on a much smaller, more personal scale. It ranges from a nagging suspicion that you could have made that project just that little bit better if you’d had an extra hour, right through to weeks of work that are met by your clients with a resounding: “That’s not what we had in mind.” 

“Failure, or at least the fear of it, is ever-present in design,” argues creative partner Phil Curl. “Will the client like it? Has it answered the brief? Are we happy with what we’re presenting? It sits like the proverbial devil on your shoulder, but keep him in check and don’t let his negative words consume you.” 

Johnson Banks founder Michael Johnson agrees: “Even the most creative people can often end up presenting less ‘out there’ ideas, primarily because the fear of the knock-back by creative director, client, or research group is so high and so traumatic. Clearly, if you don’t aim high, don’t keep designing things that push yourself (let alone your client), then overall your standard of work will drop. ‘Never be afraid to fail’ is a great mantra, but it makes for a trickier life.”

But just as fear of failure can crush even the most imaginative thinkers, it can also be the push you need to work harder and become a better designer. “Failure makes you hate yourself a little, and that’s always a good motivator,” believes illustrator Lizzie Mary Cullen.

Lizzie Mary Cullen entered this piece for the London Transport Museum’s Serco Prize for Illustration. It took a week to create, but was initially rejected. She re-entered the piece again last year, and this time it was accepted for exhibition. Lizzie also sold the original for £8,000

Kyle Bean, whose art direction and handmade paper models have won him fans in the advertising industry, agrees in the importance of failure to the creative process. “Ironically, I think success can often cause some form of failure in terms of creativity and vice versa. For example, if you get known for one specific success, that will bring in lots of very similar work, stifling your creativity. It stops you from experimenting and trying new things out. If something doesn’t quite work out, at least it is showing that you are trying something new.”

But how can designers get better at failing – both in terms of building space to fail into your creative process and minimising real disasters? The ‘fail fast’ strategy, whereby you change or ‘pivot’ your idea every time it hits a bump, has taken the tech start-up world by storm, and is starting to creep into the creative industries, too. Simon Manchipp, creative director at SomeOne, explains: “The tech sector is really into ‘fail fast’, and the idea works well if you can refresh and adapt your product rapidly and without much friction, which, of course, websites and digital applications are very adept at.” 

In order to fail fast, you need to be able to quickly spot when a project is about to go wrong, in order to then move on to another track. Part of spotting future pitfalls, argues Figtree Creative head of digital James Hurst, is getting to know your client inside out before you commit to a project. “As Sherlock Holmes observed: motive, means and opportunity,” he explains. “What are our clients motivations? Do they have the means, capability, team, money, experience to implement our suggestions? Do our suggestions relate to the opportunity in our clients’ market? Consider these, be honest and set realistic expectations.”

Hellicar & Lewis founder Pete Hellicar suggests the early warning signs that a project will fail are the same as spotting a problematic client. “When someone says there isn’t a budget but it’ll be great for your portfolio, if people ask you to pitch for free, if you’re not talking to the decision maker, if the client doesn’t want to talk to you straight about money – generally they’ll be ripping you off,” he says.

Also, if it starts taking longer than usual to wrap up a certain phase, or you stop receiving feedback altogether, it’s probably about to fail, says freelance designer Tom Muller. “Silence is a classic tell-tale that the client has made up their mind, as in they’ve decided your design isn’t what they wanted after all,” he explains. “They just don’t want to have to tell you.” 

Being approachable and making sure you set a precedent for easy and frequent communication is the simplest way to make sure that your project doesn’t get to the silent stage. This process will set you up for a lot of ‘mini failures’, as ideas are rejected along the path, but it will mean loosing a day’s worth of work rather than a couple of weeks. Teacake Design’s Graham Sykes says: “First and foremost, you should be aware this is a service industry and should always be a two-way conversation.” For Graham this means remembering that not every project is about scratching your creative itch, but delivering on the needs of that client, no matter if it isn’t the bold project you crave.

Understanding your client

Jeff Knowles of Planning Unit, the consultancy founded by two senior creatives from Neville Brody’s Research Studios, argues it’s this type of mini failure that helps you deeply understand your clients. “We had a situation where we sent off a project and the client came back straightaway to tell us that we’d totally missed the mark,” he explains. “But because of that, they then explained themselves better. It often happens with a new project in a sector that you might not understand that well, but it ends up being the catalyst to a better relationship. It’s a blessing in disguise.”

This sort of communication is also useful to stop projects failing after you’ve done your bit. After a harrowing experience where a client poorly altered a piece of his work after submission, Kyle now makes sure to establish ground rules with clients. “It was more the fact that I was not involved in the decision making process that upset me,” he explains. “Now if I sense a client is likely change my image, I always ask to be made fully aware and if possible, I want to be the one who oversees and makes the changes.”

At the same time, it’s important to give yourself time to experiment, and for those experiments to go wrong. Chris Harrison, founder at Harrison & Co, says: “I’ll try and set myself up for failure at the start of a project. It means being okay with following an idea, even though I can’t really see the end result in my mind’s eye. Potentially, it could be an idea that might meet with failure, even after days of work.”

But sometimes failure is completely out of your control. For example, Teacake Design recently worked on some branding for a well-known British musician, but the project ground to a halt because the client kept giving vague feedback before asking to see more designs. “We provided a range of work we were very happy with,” says Graham. “Nothing was selected, we provided more and more revisions, but the decision was made – we had to stop.” 

Luckily, the consultancy was paid and they parted on good terms, but mutually agreed that the client had to work out what they wanted before Teacake continued any further. “The lasting disappointment is that it would have been an exciting relationship and we would have loved to have taken the project further. We learned that sometimes you have to be a lot more proactive in searching for feedback,” explains Graham.

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