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Learning From Our Mistakes – A Cautionary Tale

A painful failure and the way we fixed it.


Today I’m giving you a peak at the sort of thing designers would rather not point out: sometimes we make mistakes. Gasp! Unfortunately it’s true, and with the permission of one of our fav clients, I thought I’d share one of our mistakes from a few weeks back…and what we did to fix it.

More than anything else, I want to share it because in Architecture school my professors often told my studio-mates and I to “measure twice, cut once.” We practice this on a daily basis, but there are those occasions when everyone forgets to measure that second time. Even more importantly, I’ve learned over the years that a pair of fresh eyes can sometimes catch a problem you’re too close to see. Usually it would not be a big deal (after all we work hard to get it right the first time!), but this particular snafu was the perfect storm of mis-measurement, tired eyes and a real error we should have caught.

I recently read a great article by Steve Baty of Meld Consulting entitled “The Idiot Check” in which he uses a simple metaphor to explain the value of doing “a last minute, top-to-tail, make-no-assumptions check before you turn out the lights and close the door behind you.” I recommend you read it.

To make use of Steve’s analogy, we did the walk through about 50 times, but then drove off with the front door unlocked, because it was so ‘obvious’ we all thought someone else had checked it. Someone else hadn’t and this is our humbling story of what happened.

The client is the Savannah Economic Development Authority and the project was to design their 2008 Annual Report. After weeks of working intensely on the project, we created a beautiful piece of collateral (on PCW paper with soy-based inks) that showcased the hard work they’d done in 2008. Our design for the cover of the annual report was meant to simulate an old-fashioned journal: dark green, pebbled leather texture, with gold fold and stitched detailing.

You can imagine our absolute HORROR when we discovered that on said cover of the freshly minted reports, we’d made a typo. Yes, you heard me…in beautiful gold foil, we’d taken the word “development” and spelled it “devOlopment”. Even typing this now, a shiver runs down my spine! How in the world did we accomplish that after we’d proofed it so many times? Turns out, the file for the foil die was the culprit. I won’t spare you the profanities I may or may not have uttered, but suffice it to say I think I killed an office plant.

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To SEDA’s credit, they handled it like a champ (certainly better than me), and were beyond gracious. I cannot truly express how much we value them as a clients and friends, and I am very thankful that they trusted us to come up with a solution to fix the mistake.

That being said, we wanted to ensure that the corrected piece was BETTER than the original. Working with our printer and bindery, we kicked around a few options and finally settled on what you see below. Rather than do a little cover-up, we went for a bold option in which we added a whole new design element to the cover: gold plaque with the correctly spelled title in black letters. We were able to apply this foil-on-foil treatment to the pieces without having to dismantle or reprint them. This was both cost effective and a much better solution from an environmental stand-point.

We’re happy with the results though our opinion is not the one that counts! SEDA’s response to the new look?

“You guys outdid yourselves. Forget about covering up an error, you used this as an opportunity to show off your design thinking skills. We loved the original design, but this is even better! Thank you!”

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For those of you Savannahians who have one of the original annual reports, you’ve got a collectors’ item on your hands. If you didn’t notice the boo-boo before (we’ve polled and seems to have gone mostly unnoticed), I guess I let the cat out of the bag. One of the biggest lessons I learned growing up was to embrace mistakes, because without them we cannot refine who we are and what we do.

I’m hoping that sharing our most embarrassing moment will be a good lesson for you. It’s been for us, and we’ve made changes to our processes to make sure this never happens again.

I’m off to find me some whipped cream for my slice of humble pie…it doesn’t taste very good, but I know it’s good for me.

Susan Isaacs

Susan’s a multitask-er who prides herself on the vast number of things (read: loose papers and coffee cups) on her desk at any one time, and yet she still manages to keep an eye on all the moving parts at Paragon.

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