After six amazing years, the founders of Hexanine have moved on to other independent design work and creative endeavors. Read more
Concrete brand talk in an ephemeral world

10 Ways To Fail Better

How To Fail

“It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard … is what makes it great.” -Tom Hanks, in A League Of Their Own

Here’s one of the reasons why I love baseball: Even the very best players, the absolute pinnacle guys — Mickey Mantle, Tony Gwynn, Ryne Sandberg, they all failed basically 70% of the time. Hitting .300 for a career pretty much gives you enshrinement into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but that works out to only getting a hit about 1/3 of the time. That’s a 70% failure rate. These players are the cream of the crop, but they have to learn to live with failure. They breathe it. It follows them around, sleeps in their beds. A 70% failure rate is pretty high, but these guys endure it and push through to levels of greatness, even though failure dogs them at every turn.

At Hexanine, we don’t particularly like to fail, but it happens. We’ve screwed up. Projects have meandered or flown off the rails. Client presentations haven’t been received well. Books with poor gluing have fallen apart. Certain logos seemed like good ideas at the time. I could go on.

We don’t like to talk about our failures because it feels weak and permeable. Its easier to fake bulletproof-ness, and I think many of our industry peers do so. But the reality is that all of us fail. We all have work we’d rather not acknowledge, or projects that we’ll never show another living soul.

Out of respect for the past clients and collaborators involved (and in the interest of maintaining good relationships) we won’t showcase those bombs here.

But we can unequivocally say that our failures have made us far better designers than we’d be without them. I’ve personally learned far more from screwups than anything I’ve done successfully. The failures of others have also helped tremendously, as a kind of education, a mental “not-to-do” list that allows us to avoid the trainwrecks of others. So, when you consider it that way, our firm is built on a landfill of failures — of ours and others. But that foundation is strong and solid, a great bedrock to construct upon.

In the interests of dissecting those cornerstones, here are ten things we’ve learned from failure. Think of them as lessons designed to help you fail better — to fail in other new and interesting ways, but not in these areas. These are offered in the hope others might internalize them, and avoid the potholes many have already hit.

1. A good result takes time, and you condense that time at your peril.
There’s more to the work than just completing it. In times when we’ve accepted a client’s aggressively-tight timeline, we’ve always completed the tasks. But sometimes that doesn’t leave enough room for the “touchy-feely” aspects of what we do. Crucial things like consensus building, thoughtful group responses over time, or “white space” for reflection while stepping away from the project all get sacrificed. And those things are more than just helpful–sometimes these “soft skills” can make or break a project, regardless of the quality of the work itself.

2. Be specific and ask lots of questions.
Our shop teachers told us what happens when you A-S-S-U-M-E, and that’s still correct. There’s no such thing as a dumb question, and when it comes to clarifying client desires, nailing down concrete feedback, or asking a printer about a final proof date, that’s doubly true. There are no points awarded for guessing correctly, and we now make it our business to get out of the fortune telling business. If it’s not clear, we just ask. And ask again.

3. Listen more than you talk.
Going into projects thinking we know the answers already has never worked. If you’re so focused on showcasing yourself, it’s hard to find out what others need. Everyone appreciates being listened to, and it seems like others-orientedness is in short supply in our culture. It’s a refreshing change for vendors, clients, employees and colleagues to have someone really be interested in what they’re saying. And shockingly, you will learn things when listening. These things will lead to great success, better relationships, and maybe even your teeth will be whiter too!

4. Try a little tactfulness.
There’s always a nicer, more dipomatic way to say something. Many of us (both Hexanine partners, in fact) are passionate, energetic creatives. We have strong opinions. Things can seem relatively black and white when it comes to revisions, personalities, or how we choose to express ourselves. This isn’t a call to abandon our principles, just to temper our responses. When emotions have finally cooled and you’ve gotten a some distance from an issue, it’s easier to see that bowling people over with unfiltered comments or criticism rarely wins you respect or admiration. Better to speak in measured, tentative language that gains you an audience than to torpedo your working relationship completely. The “bombs-away” attitude doesn’t leave too many friends in its aftermath.

5. Demand a fresh pair of eyes before hitting send.
Get someone who isn’t emotionally involved in your deadline to comb through whatever you’re doing. At the end of a long day working on a project, it can be so tempting to finally finish it up, and reflexively hit send. It’s hard to maintain the clinical objectivity when you’ve been living with a project for an extended time. So, we have a rule–important documents or designs get an unbiased look from someone outside the process before they go out. It’s the last viewer’s responsibility to call out any issues, and our duty to make those changes if they’re needed. Projects almost always need one more round of revision than we think. It’s that +1 that can take something from solid to spectacular.

6. Forget praise, but internalize failure.
This isn’t a call for rumination or kicking ourselves unnecessarily. It’s just an acknowledgement that success can breed the “I’m hot sh*t!” mentality that doesn’t lead to humility or willingness to learn. Post-mortem meetings after every project should celebrate the successes, but also analyze what could have gone better, refining the process for next time. And we always gratefully accept praise, but acknowledge that we learn more from our shortcomings. The people who seek-and-destroy their weaknesses are the ones who keep growing.

7. Be flexible, but don’t let the client subvert your process.
Our processes are born from trial-and-error, and years of doing things with a history of success. It’s a season of your career to figure out how you work best, and there are no easy roadmaps, no one-size-fits-all solutions. So, once you’ve gotten there, it’s important to stand firmly on what works, while still allowing the creative business processes to shift and breathe. That being said, some clients will come in, bowl you over, and demand a certain way of working. You can accept that, at your peril.

Every time we’ve gone down this road, we’ve paid for it — whether it’s in a lackluster end result, an unhappy client, dissatisfaction our end, or all of the above. Now, it is reasonable to flex a little bit in some circumstances, while still maintaining a grip on your way of doing things. As professionals, we need to remind our clients that they come to us, in part, because of our track record of successfully navigating the creative waters, and how we’ve led other clients to the Promised Land of success. If your prospect is unyielding, this might be time to part ways.

8. Work and act in a way that lets you sleep well at night.
It’s always a temptation to fight fire with fire. Clients who habitually yell or disrespect you, question your integrity, or hit on your co-workers don’t generally deserve your business. This is work, not war. Of course, everyone loses their cool from time to time, and it’s up to you to decide if the relationship can be mended. We can’t control the behavior of others, as much as we sometimes want to. We can, however, manage our reactions to these kinds of situations. At Hexanine, we sometimes take it as a challenge to behave better than “that guy”, always making it a point to react with patience and kindness. Sometimes that posture has diffused a situation before it gets out of control, or shames a client back into civility. But even if you’re unsuccessful it tamping down a fiery situation, acting in a respectful, professional manner will let you rest easy at night, knowing you took the high road.

9. Use the right form of communication for the right situation.
In this age of clients texting, webinars, Skype conference calls and IM chatting with prospects, it can be easy to default to our comfortable, on-screen ways of communicating. This goes particularly for us, a design firm split between two cities. We live and breath remotely, and work with many of our clients this way. But regardless of what you might have heard, old school business is not dead. There are times when phone calls and traditional face-to-face meetings are still the best methods. We’ve gone around and around on email project feedback with clients, when a simple phone call probably would have cleared up all the confusion. This isn’t a judgment on one method or another, just an encouragement to make sure you’re using the best one.

10. Set boundaries and stick to them.
This one can be challenging in our creative world, because what we do as designers walks the line between service provider and creator. We often create end products or specific deliverables, but we also need to make sure our clients’ needs are met throughout the process. Deadlines can cause people to do crazy things, and at times we’ve answered emails at midnight or picked up the phone during a late night at the office. This might make your clients and vendors feel important, but it also sets a precedent and creates an expectation. If you answer the phone at 9pm, clients will expect you to be available to discuss those copyediting changes at 9pm, even if you’re at home, watching King Kong in your underwear. And while it has become more acceptable to give out cel phone numbers to clients, this sort of disclosure might lead to a blurring of work lines that isn’t helpful for anyone. So, decide what you will and won’t do, and then stick to it.

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One Response to “10 Ways To Fail Better”

  1. Ayn Roberts says:

    Love this list, especially the part about getting a fresh pair of eyes on a project. Even in freelancing, I always try and send my work to a couple of close colleagues to get some perspective on the direction and any design hazards I could have potentially missed.

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