Every Single Design Mistake
I’ve been making design mistakes many times over the years. Fortunately, that’s how I’ve grown as a designer. Some of those mistakes were technical and easy to fix. Others were harder to fix but were all the more important because of what I learned from them. Not being thorough, being impatient, and just being inexperienced are some of my worst graphic design mistakes. Here are the rest.
Most of the mistakes I’ve made were when I was an inexperienced designer fresh out of college. Others, when I still only had a few years of experience under my belt. That’s not to say I still don’t f*ck up from time to time, but I’ve gotten much better at preventing mistakes before they happen. Here’s some of the mistakes I’ve made over my career; both in my thinking and in my actual design work, and what each mistake taught me.
1. Being a Noob Designer
Very early in my career, while I did occasional freelance work, I designed a book cover with a three-line justified title placed on the top left of the book cover. Not the center. I thought it worked because I had seen it done before.
What I didn’t realize at the time was the balance was completely off with the cover image and the heavily justified type. Placing it anywhere other than the dead center of the top of the cover wasn’t going to work. But I did. When the book came back from the printers I was like “Oh no. Did I actually do this? This looks awful.” And it did. It really did.
Since this, I’ve tried to be better about balance and symmetry, and to not just do things because I’ve seen them somewhere else before. What works on one design won’t necessarily work on another.
2. Not Being Careful on the Server
About ten years ago I was having a really productive day. I was getting all my tasks done very quickly and trying to keep up the pace to get everything done early. When I went into the file server to move a file there I pressed something on the keyboard that deleted a random file. Fortunately, the dialogue box popped up asking ‘do you want to delete this?’ first. I went to hit no, and of course, I accidentally pressed yes.
The biggest problem is that I never saw what file it was. I had to madly ask our tech guy if he could restore that whole folder from an earlier save, and to this day I’m still not sure he was able to. Maybe I deleted a reference image or maybe a whole folder. I have no idea.
I still try to work fast when I design, but when I’m on a shared server, where deleted files don’t go to the recycle bin first, I’m much more careful.
3. Taking the Fast Way Rather Than the Right Way
For a long time after I got out of design school I was the type of designer who did things fast, but not right. I would design brochures in Photoshop, only moving them into Quark XPress to print. Often I would make Photoshop layers with dozens and dozens of unnamed layers and not one single folder. I manually wrote in page numbers in an 100+ page InDesign document. I’ve used terrible free fonts from random websites because at the time they looked cool. I sent files to print with RGB images because I didn’t check the colour profile of linked images.
I did things the wrong way all the time because I didn’t know any better, and in some cases, because it was faster. Eventually I learned to educate myself on how to do things properly. It turns out doing things the right way is much faster in the long run.
4. Not Reading Carefully
I’ve done this more time than I can count. When I was in the first few years of my design career I was really anxious about getting things done fast (as seen above). Deadlines were crazier than they were in design school and I worked with people who didn’t understood how long it took to do something. Unfortunately, neither did I. I was given tight deadlines regularly, but I always did my best to meet them rather than ask for more time. One of the biggest things this affected was the amount of mistakes I made simply because I read an email, creative brief, or note too fast.
I’ve designed ads at a full page size that were meant to only be small, 1/8 sized. I have created marketing materials using colours explicit stated by the client to not be used. I’ve designed logos with misspellings of the company name. I’ve misread a client’s requested changes to a project on more than one occasion and had to redo it at the last minute.
In every case, I had to start over and fix my mistake. This adds up to a lot of lost time. But what has really come of all my mistakes is that I am now meticulous about reading directions, creative briefs, and emails. I’ll often look at a creative brief and jot down every single item that needs to be addressed in my notebook, then check off each one. Then I refer back to the brief to make sure I got everything. Then back and forth a few more times. I don’t miss anything now. It’s like that whole ‘measure twice, cut once’ thing. I measure at least five times now.
5. Working at the Last Minute
I was laying out a page for a magazine and it was incredibly last minute. The pages needed to be at the printer within the next few hours and I still had so much to do. I had started a placeholder ad where a revised version should be. When the revised version was complete, I placed it over where the placeholder ad was, deleted the placeholder, and moved onto the next task. A month later the magazine was printed and I went to that page. The revised ad was there, but so was the placeholder ad. Somehow, I had put the revised one over top of the placeholder, and not deleted the placeholder, but instead, moved it half an inch to the right, underneath the other one.
I double and triple check my work now, although receiving unrealistic deadlines from my bosses will still likely continue. As long as that happens there is room for error.
6. Not Knowing Colour Discrepancies
Fresh out of design school, in my first job, I was in a rough spot. I still had much to learn and no mentor. Aside from dozens of small mistakes I made simply because I was inexperienced, I also made the mistake of not knowing how different mediums display colour. It was something that had never come up in design school.
One of the first clients I ever worked with had come by the office to proof her business cards. After they went to print she called us, upset because the colours were completely different than what she saw on the monitor. I had no idea why this was. She stopped by to show us her cards. She was right; the green colour on her business cards was much darker than the monitor displayed. It was also different than her own office monitor. I double checked to make sure I had sent CMYK cards to print, and I had. This wasn’t an issue of messing up the colour on a file. It was simply an issue of not knowing enough to educate the client that colours appear differently on different screens, in different light, and on different paper stocks.
7. Not Realizing Fonts Lie
Looking back on my old typography-heavy design work is painful. Not just because my design skills are better now, but also because I know more about how to use fonts, as what their limitations are.
I used to think that fonts we made perfect. That if you typed out a heading or word for a logo, it didn’t need adjusting. I mean, why would anyone make an imperfect font? How would that be allowed? It turns out, most fonts suck. I don’t mean visually, but in general. Fonts aren’t designed to conform to any standard that ensures they are good to be used. This is mostly the case for the free fonts you find online, but even some paid fonts have imperfections that need adjusting when in a large format.
Many fonts need to be adjusted right down to individual vector points that might have weird lines or inconsistent curves. Others don’t come with numbers that fit properly next to text. Some are missing punctuation and special characters like ampersands, or alternate font weights and styles like italic, bold, or black. Many fonts also need to be manually kerned to ensure the letter spacing is uniform. Now, bad kerning is not something I can unsee.
8. Thinking Presentation Didn’t Matter
As a young designer I believed that design presentation didn’t matter; that good design was simply enough. I was taught that the work should speak for itself. It turns out I just interpreted that wrong.
I never bothered creating mock-ups for a design and put little effort into how I presented my work online. As long as the work itself was good, why should it matter how I presented it? There was never a specific instance where I knew I had made a mistake, but it’s possible I missed out on job opportunities because of how I presented my work online.
Design does speak for itself, but presentation really, really helps to add context and professionalism. Presentation should be simple, as to not detract from the design, but it needs to be well thought out. This includes things like how a product is packaged, how a design is mocked-up, or how you present a design concept to a client.
9. Avoiding Inspiration
When I was in design school it was pretty hard to find design inspiration. The online resources didn’t exist and there was no YouTube. There were design books at Chapters, but those required money which I didn’t have. This meant that we never did mood boards in school or put together reference imagery for any project whatsoever. Maybe it was due to this that I believed that my design ideas should come from me, and nowhere else. I thought that taking ideas I saw elsewhere was a form of plagiarism so I avoided being inspired by other design work for a long time.
Of course, as soon as I started learning about how other designers get their ideas, it was like a light went on in my brain. I could use other design work for inspiration; take parts of what they had done and apply my own style to it. My design skills have increased immeasurably since my thinking around design inspiration changed. The book ‘Steal Like an Artist’ talks about this.
10. Thinking I Was the Problem
A long time ago I worked with a project manager who had a pretty bad attitude on even the best of days. One day he came up to my desk, plopped down a project file and said “this is all wrong.” I immediately panicked because his tone suggested I really messed up.
After glancing at the project I told him that I hadn’t seen it before. He said “well you worked on it last” and stared at me blankly. Then I looked at the attached creative brief where it was spelled out who worked on it last. It wasn’t my name. I pointed that out to him and without a word, he took it over to the other person’s desk, where his attitude did a complete 180. That other person had seniority over him, and he wouldn’t dare be rude to her. So that was interesting.
A few years later I was working on a test website design. We were creating two distinct versions of a landing page to see which had a better conversion rate. I designed a very simple, bare bones landing page that filled all the requirements. The team said it was perfect and handed it off.
Shortly after this, I received an email from my boss, who essentially screamed at me via email. He said my design was ‘horrible’. He had never said anything like that about my work before. I was angry and confused. No mistakes we made on my part and yet I was to blame?
It took me a long time to realize that when you work with people, you might not ever make a single mistake, but someone will still take out their bad day on you.
11. Ignoring Red Flags
Typically, at job interviews where the people interviewing you don’t ask you a single question, and only talk about how great the company is, it’s a pyramid scheme. In this case, they simply had no idea what they were doing.
At the time, I was desperate for a design job. When I found a posting for the exact job I wanted, I jumped at the opportunity. Then came the interview. The two men interviewing me could barely explain the position, we’re using a closet for an office, and had nothing set up. At the end of the interview it came up that I had a boyfriend, and one of them actually said “boyfriend eh? That’s a shame.”
Still, when they offered me the job, I took it. I had no other options and my portfolio at the time wasn’t great. Well, it ended up being the most toxic work atmosphere I’ve ever experienced. Some of the stories I have are so ridiculous you would think they were made up.
Fortunately, I did the job well and persevered through it. The daily tasks themselves were enjoyable, despite the insanity. I stayed there a while but left as soon as another opportunity presented itself. I now pick up on potential red flags very quickly.
12. Not Starting YouTube Designing Earlier
In 2014 I really wanted to start a YouTube channel. I was working for a company that helped content creators grow their channel and I figured having a channel of my own would make me better at my job. Initially, I wanted to do a graphic design channel. I could do tutorials and maybe talk about the design industry. Unfortunately, after mapping out the kind of content I could create, I came to the conclusion I didn’t have enough to offer. Why would anyone care to watch my videos when there were more talented people online?
Instead, I created a gaming channel. I’ve always been a big gamer, so it made sense. At the time, YouTube was pretty over saturated with gamers, but I at least had ideas for content. I could do Skyrim let’s plays, Minecraft builds, and maybe some Sims builds. So that’s what I did. I created content for about a year before I had my first child. After that, I really didn’t have the time for YouTube anymore. Additionally, I lost my filming space to the baby.
I don’t really consider my gaming channel a mistake, although, I should have gone with my original idea of a design channel and just fleshed it out more. While I’ve had my design channel, I’ve been able to experiment and explore design software and create things I’ve never done in a professional capacity before. Essentially, I just wished I had done it sooner.
Making Design Mistakes: In Conclusion
The mistakes I’ve made over my career have allowed me to grow as a designer. Looking back, I’ve messed up a lot but I still have a lot of my career left. Hopefully the rest of my career will be spent more on learning and exploration rather than mistakes. Although, I’m pretty sure I need those mistakes to learn.
Hopefully this post serves as sort of a design therapy for you; knowing that you’re not alone in the mistakes you’ve made. If you’d like to share, put some of your biggest design mistakes in the comments below.