Why Projects Fail

As a designer, there are many aspects to creating a project that influence its success: predicting an accurate budget or scope, delivering the project on schedule, building a project that meets the needs of the business (or the needs of that business’ users), as well as having a client who is excited to continue working with me in the future once the project is completed.

On the other hand, ten years of design has taught me that there are only a couple of ways that a project fails, and the small percentage of my projects that have failed have fallen into one of these three categories.

Failure #1: Working Without A Contract

I hope no designer starts a project without a contract in place, but there are certainly times where a contract feels unnecessary. Making a contract seems like an obvious step when working with a new or unfamiliar client, but is it necessary when working for someone you know and trust, such as a family member, a good friend, or when doing a collaboration with another well-known colleague? Absolutely.

Sadly the amount of trust you place in another person does not always correlate to their actual trustworthiness, particularly during lengthy projects. Clients and partners may not deliver on their promises at the proper time, become unresponsive, or make choices that puts the designer in an awkward position. This is a two-way street, and sometimes a designer is more willing to flake out on a project where they don’t have any stakes the moment it becomes too difficult, time-consuming, or frustrating.

Creating a contract at the beginning of a project allows for rules and guidelines to be set and a mutual understanding of everyone’s responsibilities, schedules, expectations, desired outcomes, as well as what the consequences are when someone does not follow the rules and guidelines that have been determined. For my projects that have failed, not having a contract in place has been a major player. When those projects have become confusing or frustrating, or have otherwise gone south, it’s difficult to know how to resolve issues and the proper steps to take. I’ve found that many times, if repercussions are not discussed ahead of time, someone oftentimes feels marginalized by the resolution of the issues.

Having a thorough contract place is also an excellent safeguard against the next type of failure…

Failure #2: Not Establishing the Project's Value

I’m a big fan of bartering and service exchanges. In a perfect world, I would design for a hairstylist, a tailor, and a great tattoo artist and would look fabulous for the cost of a few hours of my time. These types of arrangements—as well as pro bono work and projects where earnings or profits are unlikely—seem as though they should be simpler when money isn’t exchanging hands, but not communicating the actual costs of the work being done can cause a number of problems.

Few clients are familiar with the intricacies and the number of elements that make up a single project, and where building an itemized list with estimates can be a lengthy process that may seem unnecessary; a simple breakdown would have saved me from a handful of uncomfortable situations in the past.

A $1000 website is a lot of $50 haircuts, but without a clear value in mind it’s hard to know when the business arrangement is over. Not being fully transparent about the value of a project and your pricing structure can create a very unbalanced power dynamic which heavily favors whoever is keeping their prices a secret. This simply isn’t fair, and does not build good rapport.

Work provided for free has similar issues. Oftentimes tasks are requested that seem like a small matter to the client, but would translate into many hours or thousands of dollars worth of work for the designer. The client doesn’t know any better, but it creates tension and it is difficult to stay motivated under those circumstances.

Cooperative projects where there’s no clear monetary benefit at the onset still deserve some thought into what everyone is contributing and how much those contributions are worth. I’ve heard so many sad stories from people who contributed greatly to the design and marketing of products that eventually become very successful, only to be given a fraction of the profits and even less recognition. Keeping track of hours worked and tasks accomplished is necessary to put a monetary value on a project (even if that project may never pay off) and setting up a theoretical reward structure in case of windfall in the future can help eliminate feelings of injustice from arising.

Failure #3: Scope Creep

This one is well known, so I won’t talk about it long. Design is all about making someone happy, which means you don’t want to tell that someone “no” when they ask for minor changes or small additions…but over time these can turn into major changes requiring the designer to rework entire portions of the project. Saying “no” is much easier when you only have a snowball instead of trying to stop an avalanche that’s threatening to destroy your schedule and budget. If you don’t have a contract in place (see Failure #1), there is no scope to follow, and projects can get lost in a labyrinth of uncertainty and confusion.

I’ve found it helps to refer to the project in terms of phases or stages, and letting the client know they are more than welcome to set up additional phases to their project—once the current phase is completed. Extra Credit: keep track of all the requests as they arise and when the project wraps up, debrief with a summary of what you’ve done, and what could still be done in the future, and give the client some time to put the spurs to their site…inevitably more alterations will emerge, and some of the requests that seemed important before may disappear completely.

Hopefully it doesn’t seem strange that I’m talking about my mistakes…everyone screws up from time to time, and I think it’s better to be honest and learn from those mistakes instead of sweeping them under the rug. I hope others can learn from my mistakes too.