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Design Disasters

We've all had them. We all hate them.

We all try very hard to avoid them. But design disasters do happen. The best thing about design disasters is learning from them, and thus becoming a better designer. Sometimes, the things that go wrong for a designer can ruin a plan or even a whole career. Then, on the other hand, sometimes disasters can be a blessing. Some of the world's best visual communications are the product of a mistake or blunder.

This article is both about design disasters, and a new book edited by Steven Heller titled Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failures, & Lessons Learned. You all know (by now) that Steven is one of my favorite design world icons. His works are always inspiring and what I consider to be essential reading for anyone who considers themselves a graphic designer. But before getting into Steven's writings, I'd like to share a couple of blunders that happened to me. Learn from other's mistakes.

Invisible headlines

Once upon a time I was called in to advise a prospective account on a project that had gone terribly bad. To protect the innocent, or not so innocent, I'll not mention any names. If those parties should happen to read this, they'll know who I'm talking about.

So, I got the call -- and it happened to be one of those clients all up and coming design studios would love to land. They were not so terribly large at the time, but were innovating in an area that was just beginning to emerge into a huge global industry. It was the early 1980s. It seems the current designer for this client had produced a company booklet at great cost with lavish 5-color printing and rich heavy stock. But something had gone wrong, and a skid of these books had to be scrapped. The reason I was called was to fix the problem.

When presented with the booklet the client asked me "what would you have done differently?" as if some kind of test. It was lavish. Good photos, obviously carefully hewn text and typography, big impressive graphics. Oh, there were dozens of things I would have done differently -- but my challenge in those few moments, was to identify the single design change that would prove my worthiness as new designer for the company. I took a chance.

My response was that as a new innovator in an emerging industry dominated by males, the font for all the headlines should be a sans serif, a bit heavier, and of a strong color rather than the pale, mint green selected by the previous designer. (I actually did not know who the previous designer was, and they weren't sharing that information.)

As if changed by some magical event, my interrogators were suddenly all on board, friendly and congratulatory. I suddenly had a new client; one that would eventually turn out as a long term, major revenue base for my firm. But what happened?

As it turns out, the original design had been proofed into dummies in black and white all through the revision cycle. An original color comp had been submitted, and approved by the lower management chain, but from that point on, all the final revisions and sign-offs had been using black and white laser proofs. That was the disaster. The ultimate approval came from the big boss who had not seen the color proof. When the printing arrived, the big boss took one look and said "this is not the booklet I approved", fired the designer and scrapped the printing. It seems the mint green was just at the threshold of the big boss's visual impairment and was unreadable. Yes, that's right, it was below the hue value threshold for his form of color blindness. End of story.

No substitue for quality

Then there was the famous $5,000 color magazine ad we designed to run in a national home magazine for a large and loyal client. Quite a bit of work went into the ad including professional photography, color proofing and so forth. (Before the days of computer color proofing!) At the final approval meeting, the board of directors were all present and the big boss president of the corporation stood up and read the ad aloud with great relish. Of course, he took complete credit for the design and copy -- and for the brilliance which was about to represent the company. We were proud. The ad went, ran in the publication and sales began rolling in.

But then the disaster came ashore. A good month after the ad had appeared, some busy-body called in to point out that the headline had a misspelled word. Sure enough, there in the headline "There is no substitue for quality" the word substitute had been misspelled. No one caught it. Not our typesetter, not the proofreader, not the client -- not even the big boss when he read the ad aloud. We all saw it as spelled correctly. Needless to say, when the big boss was notified, he went ballistic. I ended up paying for the ad out of my own pocket to avoid losing the account.

So, I can testify, design disasters happen. There were many others, I'm sure, but those are the two that remain crystal clear in my memory. Design disasters even happen to the best of designers... like Steven Heller and Seymour Chwast.

Anticipate that which should be anticipated

In Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failures, & Lessons Learned, Steven relates is own story in the introduction to the book: and we quote:

Years ago, I packaged a children's book with Seymour Chwast (he designed it, I helped conceive and edit it) that was a three-dimensional interpretation of Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol. The book was designed to be a proscenium stage that would ostensibly pop up when opened. Characters were on perforated sheets, and a script was included so that children could play along. Although the manufacture was complex, it was doable and the final printed sample was very impressive. However, when a box of final books was sent to us from the printer, we noticed that the spines were crushed. Since this was not a traditional brick-like book but rather a box in the shape of a book, the support for the spine was minimal and so crushed under the weight of other books. The book dealers refused to accept their shipments, citing damaged goods as the reason. So we were forced to reprint and insert a cardboard support in the spine, increasing the price of the book (which we absorbed) and reducing the profit margin to nothing. This was indeed a failure of some magnitude, which didn't turn into a success, but it did teach a lesson. Always anticipate that which should be anticipated. We were so wrapped up in the creative process -- design, writing, illustration -- that we neglected the fundamental production concerns. Of course, someone on the production side should have warned us, but the lesson from this failure is: Never entirely rely on others. Design is a totality; every piece impacts on every other piece, and a designer must control the process lest the process control you. Failures occur when the big picture is ignored.
Design disasters End Quote.

Thus begins one of the most enjoyable books about graphic design I've run across in many moons. Steven has managed to assemble a remarkable collection of embarrassing career moves, discarded inventions, colossal accidents, public mistakes and public failures in one wonderful collection of essays from top designers and design thinkers.

In the introduction, Steven writes:

"In the best situations, failure is a trigger. But this is different than 'trial and error,' whereby a designer plays with forms until the perfect (or near perfect) one is achieved and actually results in something that will, as our Wiki states, 'meet a desirable or intended objective.' But many times what a designer thinks is perfect, and so releases to the world is a flop. With luck, even this will provide a lesson for what not to do the next time or the time after that..."

Find the silver lining to all your private disappointments -- grimace, smile, and explore the essence of failure and success and the role of failure in a design career in essays by such notables as : Henry Petroski * Alissa Walker * William Drenttel * David Barringer * Allan Chocinov * Peter Blegvad * Ross MacDonald * Robert Grossman * Ina Saltz * Warren Lehrer * Rob Trostle * Ralph Caplan * Richard Saul Wurman * Marian Bantjes * Rick Meyerowitz * Amanda Bowers * David Jury * Veronique Vienne * Francis Levy * Nick Currie * Debbie Millman * Colin Berry * David Womack * Stefan Sagmiester * Ken Garland * Ben Kessler.

With anecdotes, illustrations, and historical examples, Design Disasters will inspire students, teachers, and professional designers alike to go against their instincts and embrace and even enjoy every design misstep. Design Disasters proves fear of failure -- and failure itself -- can be the most compelling part of the creative process.

If you take a book along on vacation this year -- take this one. You can read cover to cover, or thumb your way from essay to essay and enjoy every minute.

Please write in and share your Design Disasters with DTG readers so we can all benefit from each other's mistakes!

... and thanks for reading!

Fred Showker
Fred Showker, Editor / Publisher of DTG Magazine

Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failures, & Lessons Learned

Edited by Steven Heller
6 x 9, 240 pages, 25 b&w images, Paperback ~ List Price: $24.95, you pay only $18.21 and save $6.74 (27%)

Steven HellerSteven Heller is editor of the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design and the chair of the MFA design department at the School of Visual Arts. He is the author or editor of more than seventy books on graphic design, and he is a contributor or contributing editor to nearly 25 magazines, including Print, U&lc, Eye Magazine, Communications Arts, ID magazine, Graphis, Design Issues, and Mother Jones. Since 1986 he has been senior art director of the New York Times, which he first joined as an art director in 1974. From 1967-1973, he served as art director for numerous publications, including Interview magazine, The New York Free Press, Rock Magazine, Screw magazine, Mobster Times, Evergreen Review, and the Irish Arts Center.

He was awarded three design grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, in 1986,1988, and 1990. In 1996, he received a Special Educators Award from The Art Director's Club of New York. He has been the curator of ten design exhibitions, including "The Art of Satire" at the Pratt Graphics Center and "Art Against War" at the Parsons School of Design. Since 1986, he has directed "Modernism & Eclecticism: A History of American Graphic Design," an annual symposium at the School of Visual Arts. He lives in New York.

Special thanks to Allworth Press, www.allworth.com, text and images excerpted from Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failures, & Lessons Learned, Edited by Steven Heller, published by Allworth Press, 2008 / 2009. Used by permission, all rights reserved.


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