In Business

Shortcuts: The Quickest Route to Failure

This past graduation season, I was reminded that “FAIL means ‘first attempt in learning.’” As a student, it’s hard to get behind this statement. As an instructor, I believe it wholeheartedly. We’ve all heard adages like, “You learn more from your mistakes than your successes,” and, “Thomas Edison found 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb first.”

Blah, blah, blah. Hasn’t someone figured out a shortcut by now?

Shortcuts make for long delays. — Pippin, Lord of the Rings

As a professional, failure gets tricky. We may grudgingly accept failure is a part life and learning. If we’re honest, it’s a part most of us hate. Turns out, bosses and clients aren’t wild about it, either.

When it comes to design and marketing initiatives, how can we minimize failure and maximize success? First, establish best practices that help root out potential pitfalls, then hold ourselves and our clients to them. The biggest failures happen when steps are rushed or skipped altogether. Let me share a few #designfails where process was skirted with less-than-ideal results.

Research, or It’s Not About You

According to a 2014 article in Business News Daily, “A leading cause of business failure is not knowing who your product or service is for.” In a media landscape where marketing is increasingly personalized, understanding the target audience is essential. Worse than making no impression, companies risk making a negative one when they get the message wrong.

A few years ago, clothing company Free People launched a video campaign targeting ballet dancers. It made an impact in the ballet community alright, but for all the wrong reasons. Not only were the clothing designs impractical for dancers, some were potentially dangerous. Worse — Free People didn’t hire a real ballet dancer, which the ballet community found outright insulting.

Prototype, or Fake It ‘Til You Make It

Starbucks van with sliding door open, which condenses the name to 'SUCKS'

Prototyping doesn’t necessarily have to be an elaborate budget-buster. Something as rudimentary as notes stuck to the wall mapping out a process, or paper mock-ups taped in place, can reveal issues that might not surface in a static comp.

In 2012, Starbucks designed delivery vans for their Japanese market. Each side of the coffee-colored vans featured the logo in large letters. Unfortunately, the vans also had sliding doors, which, when the doors opened, condensed the logo down to S UCKS. One wonders if an afternoon in the company parking lot with an actual van and an easel-sized post-it pad might have led to a different design.

Review, or The Devil’s in the Details

Projects may get off-track, but deadlines are typically inflexible. Honestly, if a project has dragged on, everyone is glad to see it go out the door. But when final proofing is rushed, mistakes can be critical. Most firms have at least one horror story about this. I have two that still make me cringe.

We had a computer hardware client that would have benefitted from fresh eyes in the final proofing stage. They realized several of the technical specs they supplied to us were wrong… but not until they after received their shipment of several thousand units of their custom packages.

It’s common practice to track ad response by using different phone numbers in each version (which, by the way, is a fantastic process for measuring success). On a particularly rushed job, the proofer compared phone numbers to the list, but didn’t dial them to make sure they redirected to our call center. Two days later, the company president turned up at my desk to find out why one ad featured a phone sex line.

Case Study

Infographic poster comparing items packed in a diaper bag to items packed into a disaster bag

For contrast, let me provide one story of success. We created a pro bono poster and corresponding social media infographic for Anaheim’s Emergency Management and Preparedness division. Several counties across the country requested permission to print the poster, as well. The accompanying infographic went viral in the Emergency Management community. The project was so successful because the assistant director had done her research — she knew the target audience, where to reach them, and what information she wanted us to convey.

Tight schedules and even tighter budgets can make shortcuts very tempting. While there’s no guaranteed path to success, commitment to the process can hedge the odds in your favor. After all, failure S UCKS.

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