How to share your project failures in your portfolio
by Tobias van Schneider
I had high hopes when I first released .Mail, my email concept. Some press, thousands of sign-ups and countless hours of work later, the idea died a silent death. It’s my favorite project that never launched. We all have one.
A few years after I walked away from the wreckage of .Mail, I wrote about the experience here on the blog. I was surprised to see how much it resonated. People wrote and thanked me for being honest and sharing what I learned from the project. What was once a negative experience ultimately taught me a lot and inspired others. Plus, I’m still proud of that project. It might not have seen the light of day, but I still believe it was a great idea.
Our portfolios are typically focused on our very best work. Sometimes, our best work isn’t the work the client signs off on or the project that launches. Sometimes, even our not-so-great work has an important story to tell. Here’s how to share it in your portfolio.
Lean into the failure
I’ve seen portfolios with a whole page titled “Rejected Work.” It’s one of the first things I click for the same reason clickbait works. Humans are drawn to the extreme and the negative.
I want to see this stuff – the designs that were too risky for clients, the work the designer believed in, the idea the world just wasn’t ready for yet. Consider adding a full page on your site for your rejected work (if no contracts are keeping you from doing so). If you’re proud of the work, share it proudly in your portfolio.
Share it as a case study
It’s said we learn more from failure than success. I’ve seen many portfolios that boast the statistics, conversions and sales as a result of the work. I haven’t seen many that share their case study like a post mortem, explaining what they did, what happened and how they learned from it.
This reveals a lot about a designer’s thinking and attitude about their work. You don’t have to talk about your regrets or insecurities here, and you certainly shouldn’t bash the client or speak negatively about your team in any way. Share the story of the work in a positive light, explaining why this project, despite its “failure,” is still important to you.
Feature it like any other project
I feature .Mail in my portfolio just like the rest of my projects. I make it clear that it’s a concept and even mention it never launched, but otherwise, it appears in my portfolio like all my other work. And why not? It’s my idea, my work and work that makes me proud.
Finally: If you worked on a private project that never launched (this can be the case when working with large corporate companies, for example) there may still be a way to tease the work in your portfolio. Read our thoughts on making a portfolio when your work can't be shared. And if you're working on your portfolio now, be sure to check out more portfolio tips and inspiration right here.