10 Ways to Recover from a Design Disaster

Carrie Cousins.
March 09, 2018
10 Ways to Recover from a Design Disaster.
It’s going to happen — a design project or website launch will go poorly. What you do in the first hours, days, and weeks after that mistake can shape your future career path. Every designer makes a mistake, which is almost always a disaster to the client. No matter how big or small you think the error is, it is important to handle it with grace and make things right for the client. (This can help salvage the relationship and your reputation.) Here’s how to recover and get back on track.

1. Fess Up

The first step toward fixing a design mistake, is admitting you made one in the first place. Sometimes this can be a lot harder than it sounds. You need to admit it to yourself. And admit it to the client. (Don’t let them discover it on their own.) Be ready to explain the mistake and how you can remedy the disaster. Don’t go into that meeting or phone call without a plan of action that will get the project back on track.

2. Apologize

Learn to say “I’m sorry.” It won’t make the disaster go away, but it can help the relationship between designer and client stay intact. Avoid the “I’m sorry … but” excuse. Just apologize. Once the initial shock of the mistake is over, there might come a time for a different conversation about how the mistake happened. But there might not be. An apology is the best first step. As the designer anything that happened on your watch is ultimately your responsibility.

3. Offer to Pay for It

Sometimes you are going to need to back up that apology with cash. Offer to pay for the mistake – or comp part of the project – as a way to help remedy the situation and relationship with the client. This shows that working together, and the project in general, are important to you. Even if the client doesn’t take you up on the offer to pay, it can go a long way toward creating good feelings. The big question is often how much do you comp or pay for? It can depend on the severity of the disaster. A missed deadline for a time-sensitive website launch could be disastrous for some companies or projects, and you might offer to absolve the client of any costs. (The same is true of almost any error that can be fixed immediately or causes the company harm.) For something a little less severe, offer to cover costs associated with the mistake. Costs for elements such as a failed plugin or misquoted hosting are just small parts of the overall project that you will have to eat.

4. Find a Solution (or Two)

One of the most telling parts of recovering from a design disaster is how you resolve the problem. (And it is your job to find potential solutions when it comes to client work.) Offer at least one suggestion for how to move forward and fix issues at hand. In most cases, it can be beneficial to offer both a quick fix and then a longer-term option. Clients might not always take you up on these options, and could have suggestions of their own. Be ready for a candid conversation about what you can and can’t do, and how long potential solutions will take. (Thankfully, if you end up with a design disaster for a personal project or blow up your portfolio design, you can just take the website down until you have time to relaunch.)

5. Get Some Help

There’s no shame in asking for help. Many designers will tell you that one of the things that often contributes to a design disaster is trying to do something that might be just outside your comfort zone. Whether it is a new technique or experimenting with a new product or technology, finding someone who is more of an expert to help with the fix is a good idea. This can also instill additional trust between you and the client, because you are looking to an expert to fix the problem. Recruiting help shows that you are taking full responsibility for what happened and are committed to fixing the problem. (You can also offer to pay any fees associated with bringing in a subcontractor to help with the project.)

6. Don’t Blame the Client (Even if it is Their Fault)

Don’t blame the client for a design disaster. This is true even if the client is at fault. Instead, talk openly about the problem and solutions. Focus less on how it happened in the first place until after everything is back on track. But you don’t have to lie either. How you have these conversations depends on your relationship with the client. If the company name is misspelled, did the client proof the design before it was published? Consider incorporating proofing and approval guidelines in your contracts for clients so that design disasters like these are headaches, but don’t turn into bigger (legal) trouble.

7. Have a Backup Plan

Even from the start of a project, you have an idea of where the problem areas are. Develop backup plans for when these things go astray. Having a Plan B, helps you deal with issues as they come up, often preventing major disasters from even occurring. Share backup plans with the rest of the team – even the client – to get buy-in on A and B options for tricky design elements or situations.

8. Be Prepared to Hand it Off

Depending on the degree of the disaster, you might not actually be involved in the solution. While it’s not pleasant to think about, firings do happen. Mistakes are a common reason for it. If that happens to you, be ready to hand the project and project files off to the client and/or whoever they chose to fix the mistake. Don’t balk and don’t hold up the process. It’s better to have the cleanest breakup possible, if a breakup is inevitable.

9. Help Mitigate Fallout

Offer to help with public relations or communications after the mistake. Are there things you can do or say to mitigate the fallout? Work with your communication team and the client’s communication team to develop a plan to handle design disasters that happen in a public space or cause embarrassment. In today’s fast-paced world with social media and cameras everywhere, there aren’t many major mistakes that go unnoticed.

10. Learn for Next Time

Lesson No. 1: Mistakes happen. Lesson No. 2: Every mistake should come with a takeaway that will make you a better designer. It can take a little time for you to be ready to look back on a failed project and its aftermath. But once you are, do so with a critical eye. What could you have done better? Differently? Will you change the way your work or any processes that were in place? Even in the darkest professional moments, you can find a hint of good. Use that as a learning opportunity so that you never have to deal with that kind of design disaster again.

Carrie Cousins

Carrie Cousins is a freelance writer with more than 10 years of experience in the communications industry, including writing for print and online publications, and design and editing. You can connect with Carrie on Twitter @carriecousins.

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