5 mistakes designers must make to succeed

Coffee cup spill on desk

Whether you’re at the start of your career, or transitioning from one discipline to another, everyone makes mistakes. And that can really sting: embarrassing you in front of your boss and co-workers, and giving your confidence a massive knock. 

But it needn’t, and it shouldn’t. After all, no professional designer has ever strolled through their career without making a few awful errors. Indeed, if they hadn't, you would you be able to truly trust them? Why do you think so many job interviewers ask: ‘What’s been your biggest mistake, and what did you learn from it?'. 

In fact, if you think about it, you actually need to make mistakes, otherwise how are you going to learn, and what are you going to talk about in your next interview? In short, making mistakes, owning up to them, and moving forward is a vital element in the development of your career as a designer. You could even include some of those mistakes and how you fixed them in your next graphic design portfolio.

Don't believe us? We chatted to successful creatives about their own mistakes, and share some of the main takeaways below.

01. Doing insufficient research

Mike Brondbjerg has carved out a successful career working in data visualisation, information and generative design. But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. 

“I once designed a logo using simple and clever geometry,” he recalls. “The client was a snowboard brand, but I accidentally recreated the logo of a less well-known right-wing organisation... oops! 

“There’s nothing wrong with being edgy, but that was the wrong kind of edgy,” he adds. “This was a clear failure to do proper research. I think just a Google Image Search might have helped me in this case.”

Kultur Design website homepage

Mike Brondbjerg, aka Kultur Design, learned an important lesson early in his career

How to learn from it: Even if you spend your whole career without accidentally promoting fascism, it’s inevitable that at some point, you’ll miss something vital in your research that will bite you on the backside later. When that happens, use the experience to double-down on your research in future projects, especially if you're feeling pressure from clients or bosses to hurry it. 

Also, analyse your research methods and ask yourself why you missed the important fact. Was it merely down to sloppiness, or is there something fundamental in your research methodology that needs refining? Only by being forensic in your analysis will you uncover how to prevent the mistake reoccurring in future.

02. Overloading your portfolio 

 “Having too many items in your portfolio or on your reel has to be the biggest mistake you can make,” believes award-winning illustrator, creative director and copywriter Michele Paccione. “This really hit home to me when a friend of mine was having a hard time getting hired. Then he cut half the work from his portfolio and got a job very quickly.... even though he was showing the same work, just less of it. That really convinced me of the power of editing.” 

Editorial artwork

Designer and illustrator Michele Paccione's portfolio site shows just a few carefully curated pieces

How to learn from it: We’re all too close to our work, and so it’s inevitable that at some point you’ll put too much on display, and dilute your appeal. When that happens, take positive action, right away, and don’t be afraid to get brutal. Cut the number of examples of work in your portfolio by half (at least) and this alone will usually improve it. 

If you’re still not convinced, then canvass others’ opinions: they may have a very different view. Then later, when you’re reviewing your work in job interviews, pay close attention to what recruiters spend time on, and what they skip over. Then go back afterwards and edit accordingly.

03.  Giving clients too many options 

“One mistake we made previously as a company was giving the client too many logo options upfront, in the concept phase,” recalls Rory Berry, creative director at Superrb. “Doing this not only takes more design time, but it can often make things harder if the client wants to take elements from a few ideas and mash them together.”

Having gone through that experience, he’d now generally recommend selecting the three options you believe to be the best solution. “These should vary in style so you can get a clear steer from the client on what they do and don’t like,” he recommends. 

Designers working at desk

Superrb Studio learned an early lesson in client management

How to learn from it: At some point in your career, you’ll almost certainly present your client with an overabundance of options. At the time, it’ll seem like you’re serving the client well. But in reality, they’ll perceive it as a sign you’re not sure what you’re doing. When that happens, promise yourself that in future, you’ll do things differently. 

Primarily, at the concept phase you’ll need to spend more time on research, so you can be sure you’re creating options with the brand in mind. This will also mean you can explain your design decisions better when it comes to presenting them.

04. Spelling mistakes

We hear it time and time again. From CVs and portfolios to client mockups and even finished work, spelling mistakes just keep getting through and ruining everything. 

A few examples from our sister magazine Computer Arts, which will remain anonymous here… “I accidentally wrote PUBIC AUCTION instead of 'Public auction', on a real estate sign,” groans one designer. “The typo, in 120mm high lettering, was missed by everyone for three weeks.” Another confesses: “I spelled graphic design as 'graphic deign'. I was applying to be a graphic designer.” 

A third admits making an error on his personal website - “Leaving Lorum Ipsum in the page header on the opening page” – and he's certainly not the first to do so. Similarly, one animator admits to: “Spelling the word fluids wrong in my shot breakdown; not once, but three times. I spelled it 'fulids', and had sent my reel to four companies before noticing it.” We could go on, but you get the picture.

Colourful lettters

Colorful or colourful? The correct spelling depends on where in the world your intended audience is

How to learn from it: Take it from us as working writers; spelling mistakes are tough to spot. And so there’s no getting away from it: at some point, you will let through an absolute howler. When you do, though, don’t be disheartened. Just make sure you learn everything you can from the experience. 

Did you use Spellcheck? If not, make sure that never gets left off the checklist again. But even if you did, Spellcheck doesn’t always catch everything. Things like incorrect use of ‘your’ versus ‘you’re’, and ‘it’s’ versus ‘its’, for example, will only ever get picked up by a human. So start to put a rigorous system of editorial checks in place, involving as many colleagues as possible. A spelling error can cost you dearly, so get as many eyes as possible on your work!

05. Putting too much trust in consumer research 

Troy Wade, co-founder of Brown & Co, has had a long and illustrious career in design, but even he has made the odd mistake over the years. “On rare occasions, I haven’t fought hard enough with clients in order to produce brave work,” he admits. And one of the reasons for that has been putting too much trust in consumer research. 

“Consumer research in design is fraught with problems,” he maintains. “This is largely because consumers, in my experience, often don’t have the vision to see what you're aiming to achieve with a brand, even when you explain it to them; that is why they are not designers.”

In contrast, Wade believes, “work that allows designers to use their gut instinct based on some some deep human insight almost always eclipses work that has been overly reliant on the consideration of consumers’ opinions”.

In short, it’s all about being a leader, rather than a follower. “Being distinctive in a relevant way is fundamental to a brand’s long-term success, and requires having an unwavering belief in doing things your own way – in spite of what competitors may be doing, even successfully. You may have to break some eggs to make an omelette.”

Brown & Co portfolio

Troy Wade of Brown & Co has learned not to take consumer research too literally

How to learn from it: Consumer research is often full of useful insights, but at some point you’ll put too much trust in it, and end up with egg on your face. When that happens, don’t go to the opposite extreme and dismiss future consumer research entirely. Instead, double-down on reading through research thoroughly, analysing it carefully, and challenging it where appropriate. 

For example: is the sample size wide enough to present meaningful results? Did the researchers ask leading questions, or the wrong questions entirely? And beyond that, even if the research is valid on its own terms, that doesn’t mean you should blindly follow it. As famed automotive pioneer Henry Ford reportedly told people: “If I’d asked people what they’d wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

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Tom May

Tom May is an award-winning journalist and editor specialising in design, photography and technology. Author of the Amazon #1 bestseller Great TED Talks: Creativity, published by Pavilion Books, Tom was previously editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. Today, he is a regular contributor to Creative Bloq and its sister sites Digital Camera World, T3.com and Tech Radar. He also writes for Creative Boom and works on content marketing projects.