Where creative projects go wrong

Over the years I’ve worked with creatives on projects that include graphic and website design, physical product design, and UX / UI for apps and online platforms.

There are a few ways for a project to go to hell and leave everyone hating the process. The most common is when the ideation doesn’t match the expectation of the client (can be internal or external), even though they might already have approved it. 

Anyone who’s managed a project with a design component will recognize the cycle… 

  1. The ideation is approved, but is slightly broad / general
  2. Creative realizes they have room to stretch and gets excited, or conversely, plays it safe — leading to a 1st draft that is either specific but not what client had in mind, or overly generic
  3. Client provides extremely detailed feedback on a piece of work they don’t really like, which confuses the process
  4. Creative gets frustrated trying to fix something client doesn’t like, or creates entirely new draft which may or may not please the client (who by this time isn’t always sure what they want)

The critical moment usually happens between #2 and 3. At this point it’s still fixable but deadlines are tight and depending on how many people are involved there may be some serious frustration. 

What has to happen but often doesn’t, is a very timely, concise revisiting of ideation with the end client. You can’t fix wrong or misaligned ideation with more design, no matter how good the concept is to begin with. 

One other note: the phrase “end client” is an important one. A good project or product manager can sometimes alleviate confusion between the different people who are involved (brand, legal, marketing, PR, etc.) but whoever will actually own the end result needs to approve the ideation. That doesn’t always happen, and it’s also why big agencies rarely run a tight enough design communication cycle to avoid cost overruns. But that’s a topic for another time. 

How to tell if a startup actually has traction

Entrepreneurs have a lot of ideas. It’s easy to tell when you’re talking to one because they’ll come up with at least 2–3 business ideas in a half hour conversation on nearly anything. 

But an idea is not the same thing as a business. In a startup the most important people are those who execute, who get shit done when others simply talk about it. 

Something I’ve learned from both investors and experienced entrepreneurs is not to worry about keeping secrets in the early stages of a business. 

There are exceptions — like security software or the first idea in a niche market— but for the most part ideas are worthless because everyone has them, and reaching 400,000 customers has a whole different set of concerns than reaching 40 (or 40,000, for that matter). It’s mostly the execution, and team, that matters. 

So how do you know if the walk matches the talk? It’s a critical question if you’re investing, partnering, or considering working in a startup. 

Here are a few things I’ve noticed about companies that are experiencing significant traction… 

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