Pitfalls of Being Risk-Averse in Design

March 22, 2017 Nate Denton

Not all scenarios in life warrant taking risks. Activities like selecting an international hostel, hitchhiking in the desert and leaving egg salad in the sun are well suited for risk-averse behavior.

However, design is an activity where being risk-averse can prevent you from achieving a compelling solution and living up to your creative potential. If you approach design by asking a group of people what they want and avoid taking any risks, by the time the solution is complete, the result will probably look antiquated.

Those preferences will have expired and the outcome will seem dated and/or out of sync with where your brand needs to evolve. Taking calculated risks in design can lead to solutions that you can be proud of and will set you apart from your competitors for sustained periods of time.

There are, of course, limits to the risks you should take, but going beyond your comfort zone is not a bad thing. It’s much easier to pull the reigns back in than push them out once you have provided a “safe” option to a set of stakeholders.

T.S. Elliot once famously said,

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.”

“Safe” options tend to involve no risks and provide a minimum ante that can appease everyone but achieve nothing. In my experience, the safe options provide quick wins and buy-in but don’t provide long-term solutions. They also tend to result in much more work down the road. Here are a few recommendations when considering how to approach risk in a constructive way on your next design engagement.

Take calculated risks.
There is a big difference between taking calculated risks and pushing the envelope just to be edgy. I encourage taking risks in design, but it’s important to know your limits. If you take too many risks that don’t support the upfront goals of the project, it quickly becomes inauthentic and may not align with your brand.

In these instances, the risks can appear forced and gimmicky. The absence of authenticity can lead to confusion on the part of your customers and even result in mistrust in how you portray your organization.

Give the risk a reason.
A risk without reason is a gamble. It’s important when taking risks in design that you have a story and data to support it. That story and data should come through the research and discovery phase of the project. The data can vary in nature, some being qualitative while other data may be quantitative. Stakeholder interviews, client surveys, research reports and user testing are just of a few of the ways you can support taking risks with data.

If you propose a riskier design solution and set it up as “this looks cool,” then you find yourself in a subjective debate, which tends to result in continued compromise and lackluster outcomes. If you propose a riskier design solution by telling a story that incorporates data, research, project goals and how it benefits your customers, then it is much more challenging for someone to present opposition without it appearing like subjective criticism.

You can’t appease everyone.
Appeasing everyone generally achieves nothing other than that. Full approval from a design committee typically leads to watered-down solutions that people “don’t hate” (the worst kind of feedback) but that nobody truly believes in, is passionate about, or will resonate with your audience.

Most of the time concessions need to be made across your stakeholder set depending on how many contributors you have. It’s great to have an executive decision maker in these instances. That person can make the final call by balancing the concept against the project’s outlined goals, and prevent spending too much time and resources in revision mode.

I’m not a statistician, but I have provided a rather (un)scientific chart below that illustrates the direct relationship between the amount of people you involve in the approval process and the level of innovation you can plan to achieve in doing so.

Hint of the Day: Don’t provide a “safe” version just to have options to show a larger committee. It never works out well.

Who remembers safe?
When I was a kid I littered my walls with posters of musicians, movies, athletes and Elisabeth Shue (my first crush). I can’t remember any of them as vividly as the one that I feel took the most risk.

It was a poster of Michael Jordan playing basketball with a bunch of regular Joes on a gritty neighborhood basketball court. At the time, all the other posters were highly polished and produced studio shots with special effects to make the elements look perfect.

By taking a risk and going against the grain, Nike created a poster where Michael Jordan felt human and real. That feeling will never get old to a kid who looks up to someone in a position of celebrity status. It was the only poster of its kind at that time that I can remember. I’m sure it took some risk on the part of Nike to do something that was so different but it worked for their brand and I remember its impact to this day.

Break away.
We talk about the sea of sameness in professional services and how so many things that come out tend to look the same, sound the same and function in the same way. This tends to be a direct result of risk-averse behavior.

Many (many) times, I’ve started a project under the guidance from a client saying “we have to look different and stand out from the competition.”

It’s one of those upfront goals that tends to get overshadowed by the lure of quick stakeholder buy-in or concern that doing something different may result in scrutiny. I’ve almost always found there is much more scrutiny in sticking with the status quo than going for the extraordinary. That’s why it’s so important to understand when a risk adds value and when it’s merely a gamble in “being different”.

Using data such as stakeholder interviews, client surveys, research reports and user testing all turn risk into reward through strategy. This is how you successfully break away from the competition. By telling a unique story through design that sets you apart and remains true to your brand.

I leave you with this final thought. Never be afraid to take risks. Without risk, it’s impossible to know your potential and create compelling design solutions that provide your audience with an understanding of how you are different.

"The biggest risk is not taking any risk... In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks." – Mark Zuckerberg

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Nate Denton Creative Director, Experience Design

At the time of publishing, Nate was a Managing Director of Creative Services at One North. 

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