by Hayden Mills

I spent an entire summer designing a website that never saw the light of day

Lessons learned from a failed web design project ?

A few summers ago, I had the opportunity to work for Nextech, a non-profit that helps kids in Indiana learn to code and equips teachers to teach Computer Science (CS) in their classrooms.

Being a passionate supporter of the mission to get CS taught in every high school in Indiana, I was thrilled to be a part of the team. I helped teach the front-end/web design summer classes and also did videography work for the team when needed. On top of that, I agreed to do a summer-long web design project. I would be responsible for redesigning the Nextech website.

I had designed many websites before, so I was excited to have the opportunity to work on redesigning their site. It’s hard to find the perfect combination of an organization that will hire you and the project being something you’re truly passionate about. This was it. Not only was I getting to teach high school students how to code, but I also had the opportunity to use my own web design skills. I was going to have a great experience that I could talk about for years to come, and a great-looking portfolio piece to show off my design skills. The summer looked bright.

The summer started out well. I was working on a team with my boss and three other co-workers. We all had our assigned tasks. It was the first summer that Nextech was offering classes to high schoolers, so everyone was learning together. The students were a great group who were ready to learn how to code. However, the summer quickly grew busy.

Summer class students!

Because we were a small team, we all had to wear multiple hats and be flexible with whatever came up. I agreed to help out with more things which led to less time being spent on the site redesign. However, I was still able to get 2–3 hours a day (whether in the office or at home) to work on the new website. To me, everything was going well until the end of the summer neared.

It was a couple of weeks before I returned to school, and I had a few more pages to finish out designing for the website. There were also some parts of the website that needed copy to be edited, so I was working closely with our copywriter on the team. In my head, the site was well on its way to being done on time. That’s until I had a meeting with my boss. From the start, I could feel that this meeting wasn’t going to be a good one. My boss looked concerned.

She began explaining to me that the summer had gone by fast and gotten really busy. I agreed. She thanked me for all I had done and the effort I had put into redesigning the website.

However, she was canceling the project.

They were not going to use the new site I had been building all summer. She listed many concerns with the new website as I sat there blindsided. Her two main concerns were that the pages that had not been finished still needed “a lot of work done,” and she was concerned about the ongoing maintenance of the site after I left. Both of those were valid concerns, and I agreed with her — but man was I bummed.

As she explained more of the reasons why it wasn’t worth it to switch to the new design anymore, my mind drifted off to what I could have done differently. We ended our meeting both drained from the initial excitement and possibility of a new website by the end of summer.

I had failed her, Nextech, and myself.

For a few months after that, I wondered to myself what I could have done differently that summer. After talking to my boss more, and coworkers on my team, I realized more and more things that I could’ve done better. Most of which had nothing to do with my design skills. I had failed at the most basic of soft skills: communication.

Overall, I hadn’t done an adequate job of building confidence with my boss and the rest of the team that I was going to get the job done. This is absolutely crucial to any web design project you do. You must instill confidence in the client that you can deliver. I hadn’t done that.

Lessons learned

Here are some of the other tough lessons I learned from that summer.

Design in small chunks

I tried to design the whole website at once. Don’t do this. By doing this I spread my time unevenly and had no focus. This led to me hopping back and forth from page to page trying to design them all at once. It was a nightmare. If I could do it again, I would have designed the home page first and let that set the tone for the rest of the project. I would have had a laser focus on that goal first, and then designed the next page, and so on.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

I tricked myself into thinking that I shouldn’t “bother” my boss with the project. In my head, she had assigned me the project and I was to figure it out then get back to her.

This was a bad idea. This quickly led to her having no idea where the project was. I talked to her and the rest of the team some, but I didn’t make a weekly habit of updating her on the progress. Therefore, at the end of the summer, her confidence in me getting a website out the door had diminished.

Share early and often

I didn’t share the new designs early enough to get feedback on them. I was too slow with including others in my design process out of fear of not “having it done to perfection.” I assumed that if I showed my work in a rough, unfinished form the team would think I was a bad designer.

Screw the grand reveal. Involve every stakeholder as early as possible. Get their thoughts on the design. Email them daily updates on what you did that day. Share screenshots and sketches. Yes, there can be such things as having too many cooks in the kitchen, but you also don’t want to be cooking alone.

Ask for honest feedback

I asked for feedback on the site as I designed it, but I didn’t do this enough. I also didn’t present my work in a way that made it easy for my teammates and boss to give me honest feedback.

This was a crucial mistake that led to my boss throwing out the whole design because it had gone in a different direction than what she had originally expected. If I had made sure to get honest feedback from the start, things would have gone differently. Next time, I will try my best to foster a relationship that values honest feedback.

Never over-promise and under-deliver

It was hard for me not to get excited when I got the opportunity to work on a new project that I was super passionate about. I wanted to do a good job and do as much as I could to please the rest of the team.

However, I now realize it’s important to stay calm and under-promise when staking out a new design project. It’s better to question if you will be able to do things in the timeline they give you even if you have good reason to believe you can get it done. This way you will always be pleasantly surprising them if you can get it done before the deadline. The opposite is demoralizing and puts unneeded pressure on yourself.

Don’t spread yourself too thin

I had a hard time saying no all summer. After the workday, I agreed to teach elementary kids the basics of coding at School on Wheels, and also do design work for free freeCodeCamp on Github. I had also agreed to drive an hour home on the weekends to be involved in a small group through my church.

Needless to say, all these extracurricular activities were good things to do, but they got overwhelming quickly. This led me always being tired and less effective during the day with Nextech.

Projects get shelved all the time

Through doing freelance over the years, I had plenty of experience with clients who never ended up using my work for one reason or another. I think the difference with this one was the passion I had for this organization and their mission. I wanted to deliver.

However, I also needed to be realistic. Projects get shelved all the time. Talking to other designers who work at larger tech companies made me realize this even more. Managers change their minds. Companies change directions with products that you could have put your blood, sweat, and tears into.

Don’t take it personally. I had put a lot of pressure on myself to deliver the new site by the end of the summer, and to hear that it wasn’t going to happen was hard — but it happens, and you move on and learn from it.

The new Nextech website that never was. RIP buddy.

I learned a lot about myself and how to become a better designer from this experience. Sure it was a bummer to not get to publish the work I had done. Yes, it was a little humiliating to have to tell my teammates, students, and friends I had failed on delivering a new website design by the end of the summer.

But I realize now that in order to learn, sometimes you have to fail. Failure is a chance to learn and grow. It can be an unforeseen blessing in the long run, because it makes you more resilient and teaches you things that you would not learn if you only hopped from success to success. I needed to fail that summer, and fail I did.

The true success is learning from your failures and being emotionally resilient enough to be able to move on.

Thanks for reading!

Feel free to leave a comment below or reach out to me on Twitter ✌️

Additional reading on the topic of failure/moving too fast