10 Ways Design Students Fail Projects and How to Avoid Them

Image credit: Joy Brown /

We’ve all experienced it at some point — that sinking feeling when you know a landscape project isn’t going to pass. Toe-curling anger, frustration, regret, shame, embarrassment … and that’s just the tutors. There are many reasons why landscape architecture student projects fail to achieve a passing grade, and over the last decade, I’ve seen and heard just about all of them. Often, students focus on the poor grade as the primary negative. It’s not. The true downsides of project failure include the impact on self-esteem, confidence, and motivation and the impact on proceeding projects. To help you make sure projects get through the grading process unscathed, I’ve put together a list of key things to keep in mind. The list is not exhaustive, but it should help. 10. I love your Caesar salad, but I actually ordered steak

Highlight your design brief; image credit: Dan Kosmayer/shutterstock

Although the design brief represents the hub of any landscape project, it is often overlooked, ignored, or avoided out of fear or forgotten in the excitement of design ideation. “Eh … we’re supposed to have sections and a model; I didn’t see that in the brief?” To avoid serving Caesar salads when steaks were ordered, do the following: Read the brief a number of times, highlight keys points, have a discussion with colleagues, form a consensus, ask questions, pin it to your board and make a point of revisiting it numerous times over the project duration. No matter how wonderful your ideas, always deliver what was asked in the brief. 9. Did you read the small print?

Paying attention to detail can make all the difference; image credit sergign/shutterstock

Learning outcomes are statements used by tutors to inform the grading process.  They are often ignored by students, as they may appear complex. Many students simply skip over them in the rush to see what they have to “produce”. Outcomes should clearly indicate what is expected; they sit beside the wider design brief in terms of importance. Read them carefully. Ignore them at your peril. 8. ‘Cause I just like circles, that’s why The most important word in a landscape architecture student’s vocabulary should be WHY? The search for WHY is a foundation stone of design education; it underpins all conscious design decision-making and, for those with passion, it fosters a lifelong inquisitiveness. Design is a purposeful and intentional process, and good projects are always well justified and rationalized. WHY should be a known. If you want to fail a project, start your presentation with eh, well eh, I just, kinda sorta like swirly lines and stuff.  

Why, why, why???; image credit: marekuliasz/shutterstock

7. A matter of principle and element 

Following closely behind WHY are those three magic words — line, shape, and form; they are proceeded by color, texture, harmony, and all the design principles. Projects that succeed will be built on these, and students should be able to articulate how they have utilized them to deliver their design intention. If your proposals are not built on these, what are they built on?  6. The Offset generation CAD has done much to lessen the impact of the more onerous aspects of design. But for the young design student, it can restrict ideation, create the illusion of completeness, and result in proposals devoid of human experience. Worse still, designs trapped on screen limit the important social iteration process so important in design development. Want to do well in a project? Leave CAD until you have a well-rounded idea.  5. Devil in the details The first inkling a tutor will have that a student doesn’t understand what they’re doing is drawing scale: Small drawings usually indicate poor understanding of detail. Want to demonstrate understanding? Go large. Talk millimeters rather than meters. 4. Talk is cheap … so stuff your face Design is an iterative process that succeeds best in a social setting. The strongest projects are those that emerge through dialogue and open questioning. If you’re hoping to do poorly, stay at home, don’t talk about your ideas to anyone, and never invite any questions. Want to do well? Attend every class, develop a thick skin, open your ideas up to everyone, and ask, ask, ask. 3. Bad timing

Don’t be a victim of bad timing; image credit: STILLFX/shutterstock

Managing time is a real challenge for new design students. But as experience builds, they should be able to identify and structure how time is best allocated. In the real world, clients could care less about excuses for non-completion. If you want to do well, learn to manage your time effectively. Move deadlines forward. 2. Indecent proposal There’s nothing worse than a brilliant idea poorly presented. Well, actually, the converse is probably worse. Paying attention to presentation is vital in landscape architecture. Many projects fail to cross the line because insufficient energy is devoted to how ideas are communicated. Want to avoid the presentation pitfalls? Re-read the brief, allocate time, plan the structure and content of both graphic and verbal elements, practice, and treat every presentation as a professional interview.

Invest in your presentation, it may be the difference between a pass and a fail; image credit: Sergey Nivens/shutterstock

1. Objects and features

A classic but understandable mistake that can seriously undermine the quality of a landscape project is over-emphasis on objects and features. Young students often attach to the tangible qualities that objects offer. In the best cases, they are able to spin a spatial composition around them; but more often than not, objects are simply “plonked” into an area with little consideration given to what’s “left over”. If you want to avoid failure and strengthen your process, focus on the creation of space: The objects will look after themselves. This list could go on, and I’m sure you could add to it. Passing student projects is not about being a graphic designer, an artist, a horticulturalist, an engineer, or a computer whiz (although these things can come in handy); it is about engagement, awareness, passion, thirst for knowledge, the ability to recognize failure as a learning opportunity, and, most importantly, the willingness to learn from mistakes. Related Articles:

Article written by guest writer Barry Lupton MGLDA Barry Lupton has spent the last 15 years dividing his time between creating gardens and landscapes, lecturing in design and environmental studies at Senior College Dun Laoghaire, and writing on industry matters. He can be contacted through his website: Return to Homepage  Feature image: Image credit: Joy Brown /

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