Recognizing Risk-of-Failure in Communication Design Projects

By Yee, Joyce; Lievesley, Matthew et al. | Visible Language, May 1, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Recognizing Risk-of-Failure in Communication Design Projects

Yee, Joyce, Lievesley, Matthew, Taylor, Louise, Visible Language


The pace of commercial graphic design practice presents very few opportunities to conduct user research after a project's launch. This makes the design team's ability to anticipate and address risks during the design development phase even more important, recognized in the astute observation from Tim Brown, CEO of leading international design group IDEO, that sometimes you must "fail early to succeed early."

This paper presents the methods and strategies used by the Centre for Design Research's (CfDR) creative team to mitigate risk during three communication design case-study projects. Elements of failure are identified in each of the three cases and presented, with discussion of where and why they occurred, and the possible approaches for reducing the risk of such problems re-occurring. To provide structure to the discussion, the paper frames each contributory issue as either a usability, communication or technical failing.

The analysis demonstrates that the factors contributing to design process failures are often complex and multi-layered. To avoid a poor design project outcome, it is evident that consistent risk monitoring is present in all stages of a design project, but might be improved by better understanding how issues change their degree of importance and potential negative impact during the course of the project. Developing a mechanism to enable teams to objectively identify and manage these fluctuating project risks, will contribute to a more coherent and effective strategy for recognizing and managing future design projects.


Few practicing designers are so psychologically secure and so confident in their own abilities that they have a healthy appetite for post-mortems when projects go awry. The majority would likely move swiftly on, particularly as designing is a creative and therefore quite personal endeavor. But perhaps this anxiety prevents the designer from considering factors that are really systemic rather than personal failings and therefore miss the opportunities for design process improvement they imply.

This paper has provided the authors with an opportunity to reflect on past projects and identify the strategies used to manage risk and prevent project failure. It focuses on those failures that occur during a design process and have the potential to threaten the satisfactory completion of a project - rather than failures of a product on reaching market. If design process failures are preventable, or at least possible to mitigate, the likelihood of a design failing in the market will be considerably reduced. Case studies present reflection on what the team understood to have happened during the course of the project and, as a result, their tone is personal and reflective. Three design projects were selected by the authors, all delivered within the commercial constraints typical of graphic design practice. The reflective review of those projects provides a glimpse into the complex nature of problems arising in this setting.


Design process failures are not the same as creative failures - they are not about evaluating which design solutions might have been more successful, but rather identifying a failure to meet the various expectations of user, client and design team. For the user, a piece of visual communication should be functional and avoid misinformation. For the client, it should fulfil its communication purpose, and be delivered within the agreed time and cost. For the design team, it should answer the brief, be delivered on time and within budget and, most importantly, provide a design solution that meets (if not surpasses) user and client expectations. To provide structure to the discussion, the paper frames each contributory issue as either a usability, communication or technical failure.

Usability failure

Usability failures are those attributed to functionality problems that result in misuse of a product, or the user's failure to perform an intended task due to a fault of the design.

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