Ever Failed Big?

The design world right now is an exciting place for many reasons, but I think my favorite is the trend of embracing failure.

Keynote speakers are earnestly elaborating on the lessons they learned from failed projects, blog posts are encouraging new designers to keep with it and learn from their mistakes, and inspirational memes are reminding us that “failure is proof that you tried.”

But… it never feels that positive at the time, does it? When a potential client turns down your branding ideas or a campaign simply falls flat, your first thought probably isn’t “why, this will be a fantastic learning tool in the future!” In fact, you’d probably rather find a cave to hide in for a few weeks.

Eventually, sure, you’ll see the value of this despairing situation… but how do you deal with it when it’s the most painful?

Plan, Feel, and Record


There’s no dancing around it; this sucks. You’ve gone out on a creative limb, and your idea either got flat-out rejected or just didn’t work. An all-encompassing bummed-out feeling is normal and appropriate. This is a time to make sure you take stock of what you’re feeling and why.

Those details are painful and important. Write them down while you’re still reeling and save them for later… they’ll come in handy when you’re figuring out how to bounce back. Also, keep your portfolio in tip-top shape. Reminding yourself of past successes can be a great source of comfort after a distressing failure.

The most cringingly hard failure I can think of was the time I gave a terrible presentation at a local conference. I was just starting out in my career, and I was excited to join the entrepreneurship fray. Nobody said anything blatantly negative to me after I rambled aimlessly (and artlessly) for 30 minutes, but as soon as I sat down I knew I had blown it. I felt embarrassed, disappointed in myself, and my ego was excruciatingly bruised.

Those feelings were not pleasant, but when I finally got the courage to give another presentation a few years later, I was glad I hadn’t forgotten them.

Walk Away for a While, Then Come Back to Analyze


You’re a designer, and you’ve got to keep working… even when you’re questioning your abilities.

When it came time to think back on that botched presentation, I had to ask myself a few questions:

  • Why was I embarrassed? Along with plenty of others, a successful entrepreneur I had looked up to had stared at me like I had just murdered the past 30 minutes of her life.
  • Why was I disappointed? I had given a ho-hum presentation on a less-than-exciting topic, and I should have known better.
  • Why was my ego in so much pain? I’m used to being well-received in a performance setting, and this had backfired miserably.

Picking apart your mistakes hurts, but it’s necessary if you want to rally and turn this experience into a lesson instead of just that one time you watched three seasons of X-Files faster than you could finish a bag of chocolate chips.

Figure out Exactly What You’ll do Differently in the Future


So you felt like crap after your experience… so what? What does this mean, ultimately, for your design career? How can you turn these feelings into something you can use?

I like to present myself with a very blatant takeaway that I won’t forget. “In the future, I will do this.”

I was embarrassed after that presentation, ultimately because I hadn’t researched the conference or its attendees. That successful entrepreneur was bored out of her mind because she had just listened to me blather for 30 minutes about something she already knew, and I hadn’t presented a fresh perspective.

In the future, I will make sure to look up past attendees, and learn their professions or specialties before I stand before them as an authority.

I was disappointed in myself because I ignored my instincts. I knew I needed to prepare more, and I knew I needed to find a way to stand out.

In the future, I will set preparation deadlines for myself in order to avoid a forgettable and haphazard product.

I found myself nursing my ego because I had romanticized my past skills and had not worked on refining them in years.

In the future, I will rehearse my presentations at least once and seek out other opportunities to hone my abilities.

Knowing that your career as a designer will be shaped by the decisions you make — and the inevitable failures that accompany them — is intimidating. Having a plan in place, however, can lessen that fear and help you take the risks that will set you apart in your field.

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