This title may appear rather presumptuous in the light of the progress made by the leading wave energy devices. However, there may still be some useful lessons to be learnt from current ‘offshore’ practice, and there are certainly some awful warnings from the past. Wave energy devices and the marine structures used in oil and gas exploration as well as production share a common environment and both are subject to wave, wind and current loads, which may be evaluated with well-validated, albeit imperfect, tools. Both types of structure can be designed, analysed and fabricated using similar tools and technologies. They fulfil very different missions and are subject to different economic and performance requirements; hence ‘offshore’ design tools must be used appropriately in wave energy project and system design, and ‘offshore’ cost data should be adapted for ‘wave’ applications. This article reviews the similarities and differences between the fields and highlights the differing economic environments; offshore structures are typically a small to moderate component of field development cost, while wave power devices will dominate overall system cost. The typical ‘offshore’ design process is summarized and issues such as reliability-based design and design of not normally manned structures are addressed. Lessons learned from poor design in the past are discussed to highlight areas where care is needed, and wave energy-specific design areas are reviewed. Opportunities for innovation and optimization in wave energy project and device design are discussed; wave energy projects must ultimately compete on a level playing field with other routes to low CO2 energy and/or energy efficiency. This article is a personal viewpoint and not an expression of a ConocoPhillips position.