Getting Dinged and Bouncing Back

As a creative professional and a former grad student, I’ve had my fair share of tough critiques, failed presentations, annoyed clients and general bruises to my ego. Some of these memories still sting like hell, but mostly I’m at peace with the body of my failures. It’s easy to look back on mistakes and see what they taught me. I’ve also gotten more comfortable with receiving feedback. As long as it’s respectful, I’m all for hearing client suggestions on how to make the work better.

Despite these years of experience, the specter of a bad first presentation still looms large.

I don’t strive for perfection on a first round. It’s life affirming to, every once in a while, nail a design on a first pass, but that isn’t the goal. Instead, I try to show as many different, conceptually sound ideas as possible, even if some are still rough. A successful first presentation should give clients enough fodder to respond to so we can hone in on the strongest direction. Healthy trial and error allows both me and the client to visualize what works best and why. At this early stage, the client should be excited and inspired by the potential of the project.

A failed first presentation disappoints clients, or worse, makes them question why they hired me. This happened recently when I showed a first draft of a home page design. I thought I was on the right track because I was riffing off of a logo that had already been approved. Maybe because of this, I assumed that the vibe I fleshed out in the home page made perfect sense. That wasn’t the case to my client. She felt that I’d missed the mark completely. The font choices, color palette, textures I had chosen–everything fell flat.

Sure, I could chalk up a good portion of her feedback to a subjective difference in taste. But preferences aside, the pangs of remorse were still sharp. How could I get things so wrong? Was I so confident in what I thought looked great that I’d glossed over hints about her likes and dislikes that I should’ve absorbed in our initial briefing? Did I rush the layout out the door when I should have taken more time to explore more variations and judge them critically? It was probably a combination of all of the above.

So I got dinged. My client was good natured about it, and she stayed positive as she articulated why she wasn’t happy, but I know I rattled her confidence in me, and I certainly felt bad about myself. Not all clients are as patient with the process. And man, does it suck to get a barbed email from someone who wants to fire you on the spot and offers no chance of redemption. Either way, it takes extra work to regain the positive momentum we had going pre-lame presentation.

The thing about design is that it’s subjective. I have total confidence that, with enough rounds of review, I can deliver a final design to any type of client that they will love. But I can’t promise I’ll get it right in the first round. Even if I have a “successful” first presentation 95% of the time, I’m still going to miss once in a while. Sometimes the misses will be gloriously bad, and other times, just bad enough to sting. The place between showing first attempts and being on track to something everyone is excited about is a wobbly one. Powering through that ambiguity requires all the resolve that my years of experience have granted me.

I’m happy to report that I’ve revised the botched home page a few times, and now my client is thrilled with the work. I’m eternally grateful for the clients who trust the process like I do, and allow me the space to fail a bit and then try again.