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My early design fails and what they taught me

Design Fail Lessons

Darren PalmerDarren has a broad portfolio, having studied fine art & graphic design, originally working in advertising and owning his own graphic design company. After succumbing to his true passion, Darren now operates his own interior design studio and has been a judge on numerous seasons of The Block.


No one wants to admit to errors or mistakes but it is only in doing so that you get to learn and indeed, hopefully never repeat the actions which led to perhaps less than desirable situations.

You needn’t have to make the mistake to learn from it though, so here are a few lessons I’ve picked up along the way from my experience and the experiences of others in my travels.

Always be clear on your intensions

Communicate to everyone involved in a project to make sure they are aware of what is happening, when it is happening, what effect it will have on them and what they need to do to prepare for it with time to do so. There was a project I worked on many years ago and it was in an old building. The apartment needed to be gutted and the works were inevitably going to create noise and mess. A neighbour was warned about the process but the dust from the job made its way down into their apartment. Whilst there was nothing that could be done to avoid this situation in this instance, it is good to explain the scenario and consequences to everyone involved, including neighbours, to manage their expectations. It’s by involving most people that you get the least resistance. There are obviously always exceptions to that rule.

Always be clear on your constraints

Budget is the big one. If the client only has so much money, make sure that everyone working on the project is aware that the budget is finite and that variations won’t be possible. You need your client to know that changes cost money but you also need to be sure that the builder and contractors know every detail possible so that you can minimise having to make decisions on the fly that can blow out budgets. There are unseen things in any renovation that are impossible to know until demolition and further inspection, although it is best to cordon those possibilities off from your scope and budget and allow a contingency for any additional costs that those unknowns may bring. In the best case scenario, a contingency is not for adjusting things on the fly.

Be sure

You can’t always be absolutely sure to be fair, but you can be confident. Making sure that you make decisions that you feel are appropriate to the brief, that reflect the creative vision you have in mind, that fit in with the budget and that you can see in your mind’s eye working into a successful, final result is enough. You don’t have to try on every shoe in the world to find a great shoe, just like you don’t need to see every paint colour, tile sample, carpet type or sofa. Find the one that fits, that you like, that works and that suits and you’re done. Move onto the next thing swiftly with certainty that you have found an appropriate solution. Appropriate solutions save time and money in trying to find the perfect solution, as the perfect solution as with all perfection is simply an unachievable illusion.

Allow for more time

Set a timeline in consultation with the contractors involved. Run a Gantt chart and project manage the timeline tightly and with structure. That said, always allow for some extra time in the project in case weather, tragedy or some other unknowable force changes the process. One change will impact the next, so that flexibility to adjust the delivery date is a necessity to allow for a smooth process where all people involved aren’t under pressure. You do need to keep a tight ship and make everyone accountable to what they have agreed but you also need to accept that things come up along the way that can impact your project. Weather events can damage sites or materials, hinder work outdoors and have a knock on effect for the work flow of contractors which can then have an effect on your project. It’s by staying reasonable and flexible whilst keeping everyone accountable that you will stay successful. A contingency of 10-20% of time on moving in and booting out contractors is sensible.

Allow for more money

We all know money doesn’t grow on trees and funds can often be finite so if you know what your absolute, absolute, ABSOLUTE limit is make sure you keep some up your sleeve in case the worst happens. If you have a budget, first remove 10-20% of the quoted price for completion for your contingency. Then remove the cost of architects or interior designers, project manners or whomever is creating the project for you. Then make sure the materials, labour and inclusions can be achieved with what’s left. If you intend to make a profit from your improvements you also need to work backward from your ideal and reasonable sale price, making sure you have enough profit after all of the expenses and contingencies to make the project worthwhile.

The above is a snap shot of the broad strokes of what you can consider to make your projects go to plan and budget. As the old adage goes, aim for the best, plan for the worst and I’d add in, manage everyone’s expectations as you go, so that you can have the best possible result with the least amount of pain.