Every designer has stories of the design that got away. The version that the client should have chosen or the version that was turned down because the client’s partner didn’t like purple... These are emotional reasons for a design not succeeding though. Here, I want to talk about the rational reasons behind work being rejected.
All the designs I’m going to show here have been tucked away at the bottom of a project folder, hidden from sight once the client said no. These designs were all argued for with passion, but emotion wasn’t what killed them cold. It was not understanding the client. Here’s what I’ve learnt.
Pushing the spec
FiveFWD, 2008, product page
I can remember being really frustrated that this piece of work wasn’t going to be built. I thought I had come up with a very elegant solution to a problem that the client wanted fixed. In reality though, this was an instance of simply not asking enough questions before I opened up Photoshop. It turned out that there was a huge gap between the design I’d created and what the client actually wanted.
The client had wanted a relatively simple redesign of a small area of the page to accommodate a new piece of functionality. Seeing an opportunity to add the new features and correct some areas of the existing design I didn’t like, I ran away with myself. I pushed the spec and pushed the design past what the client was looking for.
I could have easily avoided this situation by a process of discovery. It’s easy to forget to ask questions when you’re excited to start designing. However, discovering and then confirming your understanding of the client’s brief (and their expectations) always gives you the strong starting point you need to produce successful work.
Pushing the points
Telegraph Fashion, 2010, I•SPIED trends page
Ah, the cruel wind of disappointment when you discover that there are no story points left to build your masterpiece. Or at least, what feels like a masterpiece at the time and absolutely crucial, nay critical, to the success of the project.
In this shopping page for Telegraph Fashion I needed to show that some items were curated collections of products (such as the Safari Trend). Using one of the standard image sizes I’d used elsewhere on the site, I designed an image grid to display all of the products inside a collection. It was beautiful and it met the brief.
And yet, I had created something that was too complex to be built with the points available. There are chances of this happening on every project you work on. It can be very easy to push the design past what’s possible, especially as you don’t know what is possible until you actual start.
However, despair at a story points seemingly cold and heartless soul can be avoided. Whilst I was excited by the opportunity of this design if I’d kept the team involved and shown a sketch to a developer before I’d started in Photoshop I could have saved myself a lot of time. I could have stepped away from investing too much of myself in the design and come up with a different solution instead.
Having said that, there are also times to fight for your design. When you believe in an idea so much that you know that a sketch won’t do it justice. That you need to fully visualise it to get the team and the client excited. Knowing this moment and being able to recognise your belief that an idea meets the needs of the client and the users is crucial. And of course, when to step back and save your karma for larger, more important battles.
Pushing the technology
Fashion Telegraph, 2010, columnists index
There are times when you come up with a design that can’t be built. Not because it’s a bad design, or that it doesn’t meet the needs of the brief, but because it can’t be built. Literally.
In this example I wanted to replicate some of the design elements from the Telegraph’s weekend magazines. They used lots of circles, pull quotes and colour blocks to make the printed pages come alive. I wanted to do the same online.
I believe the technical term is ‘non-trivial’. It may be possible now, but it wasn’t achievable by the client’s development team. The obvious lesson is to have as good an understanding of what’s technically possible as you can. And to not be too optimistic about what’s possible now (oh, to launch this site two years later...).
Pushing the content
LOVEFiLM, 2008, product page
We spent a long time redesigning LOVEFiLM’s product pages to bring them up to date with new functionality and features. This was one of the rough designs that didn’t make it. Not because the idea didn’t solve the problem, but because there wasn’t enough content to make the idea successful.
Sensing a shift that films were moving from having one ‘hero’ trailer to having multiple trailers and featurettes, we wanted to create a design that allowed users to seamlessly move between this content. A carousel underneath a central video player seemed to make perfect sense.
However, when we were presenting this design there simply wasn’t the content available to justify it. Maybe for a handful of blockbusters, but not for the thousands and thousands of archive films that would also have to use this template. The design got killed for something far simpler.
This was an instance where we designed for the future and weren’t realistic about today’s world and what content the client had available. I wish we had pushed for a design that was flexible and that worked whether the carousel was used or not. Apple launched a similar content carousel for their trailer pages several months later.
Pushing the company
Travel site, 2011, social content wireframe
This example of design fail is in pushing the client’s company seemingly too far, in creating a design that they’re simply not ready for. Either from a business, political or technical viewpoint.
This design example is the most logical of ideas, to use social content to inspire customers about new destinations and holidays. Yet it died the death because the entire company couldn’t get behind it. It’s perhaps the most important lesson of all: successful design is the execution of good strategy - and that needs to be sold across the entire business. Design (and visualising strategy through design) can help in this process, but unfortunately, in the most political of organisations, it’s not always possible.
Pushing the brand
NYLON, 2007, home page concept
This final case of is an instance of going where the client didn’t want you to go. It’s perhaps the most difficult place to be in, not because you’ve made a mistake or gone too far, but because design is a process of exploration. To find out what’s possible, sometimes you have to find out what’s impossible. To get to what’s liked, occasionally you have to discover what’s disliked.
In this case I pushed the brand past what the client wanted, though neither the client nor I knew that until the design was presented. Sometimes you have to be brave and let an idea fly. You might strike gold. At the very least, you get to understand the client more deeply.
Pushing the designer
So there we have it. Six example of design death, not through bad design per se, but through under or over estimating the limits of what was possible. As design itself is a process of iteration and improvement, I know these examples push me as a designer to better understand clients and in turn, deliver better work.