True Confessions

As a designer for thirtysomething years, I’ve had my share of projects gone bad. Although most were the fault of graphically challenged or professionally inept clients, a few have actually been my fault. Yes, I’m admitting that designers do make mistakes, and sometimes big ones.

While helping to organize a three-person panel discussion on this topic for the 2001 HOW Design Conference in San Francisco, I was surprised to find how few noted designers have ever made a professional mistake. I had a declaration of guilt I was willing to bare, but the HOW editors wanted a couple of big-name draws, so they provided me with a list of a half-dozen individuals who they’d like to see on the panel with me. When I phoned these hotshot designers to ask if they’d share the confessional with me, the most common responses were, "I’m sorry, but I can’t think of anything I could contribute to the panel," or, "Thank you for considering me for the panel, but I haven’t made any mistakes like that." Yeah, right. I’m not going to mention names, but if you pick up the last seven Communication Arts design annuals, you’ll find that all six of these folks have award-winning work in each one.

Bielenberg Comes Clean
While discussing my dilemman with a few friends at a design function a couple weeks later, I finally found two accomplished designers who were not only willing to admit to making mistakes that lost them important clients, but also were willing to do so before their peers.

At the HOW conference, our panel moderator Rick Torreano of Fox River Paper Co. swore us in and made sure we all pleaded guilty as charged. The first panelist was John Bielenberg, who ran a small design firm in San Francisco before moving to Belfast, ME. Before he left the Bay Area, his firm was contracted to create a strategic collateral campaign to help introduce insurance policies to large equipment-leasing companies, sellers and customers. After Bielenberg orchestrated a few workshop meetings with the client, his firm determined that a lot of people in this business end up getting screwed. Out of this research, Bielenberg and his writer Rich Binell dreamed up a gutsy, award-winning campaign that consisted of three brochures based on the theme "How to get screwed—or, What’s wrong with leasing." The brochures read, "Your customer’s lease applications were rejected, so you got screwed," and "You didn’t read your lease, so you got screwed," and "You didn’t understand your lease, so you got screwed." Subsequent to implementing this campaign, the client did a little research on his own and found that leasing agents were not actually getting screwed at all and that Bielenberg’s entire positioning strategy was wrong.

In the end, it was Bielenberg who got screwed. The insurance company went out of business, leaving him holding 187,000 shares of worthless stock he took in exchange for his strategy and design fees. Sounds like a bad dream, but it woke John up.

Adams Admits
The second panelist was Sean Adams of AdamsMorioka in Beverly Hills, CA. Sean was committed to telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The client was a $7 billion healthcare organization looking for a new identity. AdamsMorioka took the old "Landor approach" and presented hundreds of ideas to the client. Symbols, wordmarks, logos—just about anything they could think of. Although Adams said that quantity vs. quality may not be the best way to present in most situations, he felt this was the right approach for this particular client, considering that two other design firms had previously been fired from this same project. (I thought, "Helloo Sean! Time to wake up and smell the blood.")

Adams and Morioka wanted to present so many logos that they admitted to photocopying some of them and duplicating their appearance throughout the presentation just to beef up the quantity. After working with the marketing folks for six months, exploring every possible avenue, they narrowed the field to one logo to present to the CEO. This approach backfired on the designers. The CEO took the logo home and showed it to his industrial design-trained wife, who asked, "Honey, is that all there is? I can do more than that." The next day, the designers were fired. Next time, you can bet Adams and Morioka will wake up and bring the decision-maker into the process long before they narrow the client’s design options down to only one.

Tharp Owns Up
And then it was my turn. In the summer of 2000, a well-known national department-store chain based in the Northwest contracted us to develop identity and signage programs for its in-store restaurants and espresso bars. Teh first round of presentations went pretty well, and we went back to the drawing board for further development. (Yes, I still use my drawing board.) We tightened up the designs, selected our favorite and built a scale model of the restaurant’s entryway. We shipped the model to the client via air freight, and I was to follow with the alternative designs in my portfolio.

But as fate would have it, my plane never left San Francisco. The client was opening th epartial presentation as I phoned him from the airport. Allowing me little chance to speak, he said, "Rick, we’re both upset. You’re upset because your plane never left the airport, and I’m upset because of what I see in your presentation. I’m taking you off the project." I tried to explain that it was only one of many directions we could take, but it fell on a deaf ear. I’m not sure what his other ear was hearing, but that’s the last I ever heard from him.

I never found out why we were fired, but the following spring I went to a mall to check out the finished restaurant. The entryway signage bore a more-than-striking resemblance to our original design. Now my boards stay with me on the way to and from my presentations. And we never present design concepts over the Internet.

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