We mess up. Not every project we ship is perfect.

As the co-founder of Lightboard it pains me to admit it.

In 2017 we completed a few thousand projects. The overwhelming majority finished with great work and happy customers–and that's what we usually talk about.

But today we're going to talk about the projects that didn't go well.

Even if we're perfect on 99% of our projects–that 1% is still dozens of failed projects.

Failure is painful, but a learning opportunity.

When each project completes, we automatically send ratings requests to everyone on the project. Those ratings have given us an enormous amount of data about how to run a successful design project–and what not to do.

First off, sometimes we just flat-out mess up. Usually in one of three ways: schedule, transparency, or effort.

These are process problems, and we do what we can to make it right with the customer–either by refunding, redoing, or re-assigning.

And we're working on improving our process so they don't happen again.

We've built a better schedule tool that provides clear deliverable dates and makes it easier for us communicate when the schedule changes. To improve transparency, we're making sure that we clearly set expectations at the start of a project, and communicate if anything changes in flight. And finally, we're making sure that our designers have the time, resources, and talent to deliver a great final result.


Some projects are just born bad.

Unfortunately, not every project is going to be successful. Our thorniest problems are ones where there's trouble on the other side of the table: the client.

Design is a relationship. A designer and client are trying to create something that doesn't exist yet, and that requires communication and compromise.

And like a lot of relationships, if communication breaks down, so does the relationship. And a bad relationship usually produces a bad design.

Here are some tips for avoiding bad design, regardless of whether you're working with Lightboard, another agency, a freelancer, or an in-house designer.

Trap #1: Unrealistic expectations

By far the hardest problem is when we have a mismatch in expectations. Particularly for customers purchasing professional design for the first time, it's hard to know what's reasonable to expect.

There's an old joke: "We offer three kinds of service: Fast, cheap, or good. Pick Two."

These three constraints are the physics of design, and it's hard to bend them. Great design takes time, and time costs money. For customers starting from scratch, this can be painful. We always want to do a great job, but if we can't compromise on time or price, we won't be able to deliver a quality result–and everybody ends up disappointed.

How to avoid it: Do the homework. Make sure you have a clear goal at the start of the project. On our side, we make sure to have a concrete and achievable deliverable in sight before starting a project.

Trap #2: Trojan Horse

Another common problem is when a project is really a much larger one wrapped in disguise. Perhaps a customer wants a pitch deck–but also a brand identity to go with the deck.

Instead of solving one problem, the designer now has to solve a much bigger one in tandem, without additional time or budget. Many moving parts increases stress and tension, and the designer ends up stretched too thin trying to keep all the plates in the air.

We see this problem frequently on demo day pitch decks. A young company will come to us with a hard deadline, high expectations–and no design assets. They're already under a lot of stress, and everyone ends up frustrated. (And even though it's stressful, we still love supporting Techstars on Demo Day)

How to avoid it: Prioritize. Break out the deliverables, dependencies, and deadlines, and work with your team to make the process orderly and efficient. On our side, we surface the building blocks we need to deliver a project, and make sure we've scheduled and staged the deadlines appropriately.

Trap #3: Ghosting

We send over the first round and–radio silence. The customer simply doesn't respond. And, if we eventually manage to get ahold of them, they'll mumble something about how the design wasn't what they were looking for and now it's too late to do anything about it.

We understand. No one likes giving negative feedback. It's difficult. But revision and iteration are at the core of producing great design.

No designer wants to do a bad job. No matter how difficult the project, she wants the client to be happy–but unfortunately she's not a mindreader and, particularly with tricky projects, sometimes we need to explore different ideas before we land on the right one.

How to avoid it: Deliver the bad news and be open to a dialogue about next steps. We want feedback. On our side, we try to recognize when the customer might not be thrilled with the work and present low-conflict ways for them to move forward.

Top design traps and how to avoid them.

Just want the TLDR? Here's a quick recap:

Unrealistic expectations. Want amazing design, yesterday, and dirt cheap? It's not going to happen.

Trojan Horse. Is your project really a dozen different projects in disguise? Prioritize what you need now and what can come later, and make hard decisions to come up with achievable results.

Ghosting. Delivering negative feedback is tough. Stick with it–and don't worry about hurting our feelings. If a project goes sideways, we just need to know what we can do to get it back on track.

What we've learned

Adding the feedback loop was one of the most helpful features we added to our platform. Not only did it help quantify how we're doing, it gave our customers and staff an escape valve to talk about small problems before they became major ones.

Design, like any project, is composed on dozens or hundreds of micro-interactions. And small grievances build up over time. Our ratings system has given us a way to reset the clock with a frank conversation and build a better relationship–and deliver better design.