Creatives, I Need to Have a Word with Your Boss

 

I’m writing this post because I’m pissed off.

The circumstances don’t matter. The people involved don’t matter. Really, none of the specifics matter because this is something that I’ve seen happen over and over again since I entered the creative world, and it’s something that is actively harming every industry I’ve ever worked in.

But let’s start with some background information, because unless you work as a creative this may not make a lot of sense.

The way a corporate structure works is that there is a solidly established hierarchy, one in which each person has someone else above them to report to who then has someone else to report to who also has someone else to report to, allllll the way up to the tippy-top of the corporate mountain. At the top is the head-honcho, the person who makes all the big-picture decisions and manages the underlings, the hope being that the people below the top-person will manage most of the day-to-day decisions so that he/she can focus on the management of the company as a whole.

This is what we call bureaucracy, and though certain aspects of this system work well, it also creates a situation where professional middlemen, good at leading (though not always even that) and managing but without any other firm skill sets are in charge. This isn’t such a terrible thing by itself because they are there to make the sprockets turn smoothly so that the people who are creating something can do so without having to worry about all the moving parts, right?

That’s how it SHOULD work, but unfortunately over time this system has evolved (or devolved) into the following: a creative (using this term to mean anyone who creates something) does their best to devise and develop a product (using this term to mean anything a creative creates) using their education, knowledge and experience, just as they were hired to do. A middleman of some sort then tells them to change it because they think it should be more X, Y or Z. A back-and-forth ensues wherein the middleman tells the creative how to do their job, and because they have the whammy on the creative (read: can fire them if they don’t obey), the creative must make the changes the middleman asks for.

It usually sounds something like this:

Designer: “Here’s the design for the newsletter.”
Manager: “I don’t like the color. And I think you should use a different font here. And this photo should be bigger. And I think it needs to feel younger.”
Designer (wants to say): “Why should I care whether or not you like the color? I took 3 years of color theory when I went to design school..you wear power ties in primary colors. It’s not a font, it’s a typeface, and that’s the perfect one to use for this look. If that photo is bigger the visual hierarchy will be thrown off and the viewer won’t know where to look first. And saying something should feel younger is just a way for you to assert that not only do you have the power to make me change things arbitrarily, but you also want to feel like you have some idea about what makes something look younger. I’ll bet if I asked you for specifics right now you’d act as if it’s obvious and I should know what you mean – being a designer – when in reality you’re just spouting nothingness to sound important.”
Design (actually says): “I’ll take another stab at it.”

Let’s take a deep breath and look at what just happened here.

The creative was hired because they know their business and are good at what they do. The middleman was hired to deal with the bureaucratic process. What ends up happening instead is that middleman tells the creative how to do their job, so no longer is there any expertise going into the creative process…the good work is being destroyed by the opinion of an untrained eye.

No one is getting what they want.

Middlemen who are good at processes but not creating are doing all the creating and making up for their lack of software knowledge by doing it through the person who was hired to create.

It’s all I can do not to jump up and down, shouting at the top of my lungs over the insanity of this situation. Here we have work, good work, being done for the company and it’s being torn apart because the middleman thinks they know more about the creative’s job than the creative. Sure, they didn’t go to school for it, work for years at it or show any talent for it, but they are in charge, and therefore their opinion matters more than those of the people they oversee.

It’s madness, but it’s so ingrained that you have to travel far and look hard to find companies that don’t adhere to this pattern.

This, my friends, is a big part of why I run my own company and will never again work for someone else. I got tired of my work being watered down to feed the ego of someone who thinks they have good taste (and who’s going to tell them they don’t? You don’t want to offend your boss).

I am paid to be a problem-solver and creator, not a Photoshop-technician.

At this point in my career I’m fortunate to be in a position to take on the clients that I enjoy working with and avoid or fire the ones that I don’t. I will always do my utmost to explain the why’s of my decisions, take into consideration any good, rational arguments the client might have (or opinions that won’t harm the design to implement), but I’m done with having my work bastardized because of petty hierarchy.

I’m done with having someone who doesn’t know what an x-height or serif is tell me that my ‘fonts looks wrong.’

I’m done with adhering to the status quo because that’s the only way most people know how to operate.

I want to make it clear that I’m not saying these are BAD people. In fact, they’re just playing the game the way they were taught, just like everyone else.

I myself am frequently in leadership positions where I’m forced to make the same executive decisions that result in inferior products. I constantly manage people who I’m hoping will put their own spin on things and add to the overall vision of a product, but unfortunately most have been trained well to follow directions and keep their heads down. The really revolutionary stuff does not come from ‘design by committee,’ it comes from really talented people with free reign and a manager who knows how to clear road blocks so that the creators can really shine.

Instead, most creatives are trained to wait for approval before trying anything new, willingly make any change that is suggested without bringing up something that would work better, and never telling the higher-ups that they are dead wrong, have no taste and should learn something about aesthetics before giving their opinion.

So what’s the solution?

I seriously doubt most creatives will be moved by this rant to stand up to the higher-ups at work and tell them where they can stick their ‘notes’ on the most recent project, but at least it make clear that you WANT to be a part of what you were hired to do.

Let’s try this: send a link to this post to anyone you know in a management or creative position and we’ll see what happens.

I’m sure some people will be upset, most will be in denial, and several will likely write strongly-worded messages to me.

Hopefully, though, making sure everyone is on the same page will start a dialogue that will begin to bring some small changes to the dynamic of the workplace which will lead to better products, better work relationships and a more beautiful, well-designed world.

68 comments

  1. From experience, what I found out works better is explaining the reasoning of every detail upfront and how that detail relates to the client’s needs before as soon as you show them what you have made. It’s almost like telling them how they should think before they can form an opinion on it. It doesn’t help all the time, but it quite often makes it so that there are less changes.

  2. From experience, what I found out works better is explaining the reasoning of every detail upfront and how that detail relates to the client’s needs before as soon as you show them what you have made. It’s almost like telling them how they should think before they can form an opinion on it. It doesn’t help all the time, but it quite often makes it so that there are less changes.

  3. Oh this is a pain I feel too much. My boss (who has no eye design whatsoever) recently took it upon herself to design a Powerpoint template and asked for my (a person who is trained and experienced in graphic design) opinion. I told her to lose the Clipart (as ya’ do… vomit worthy). She then got into an argument with my as to why it’s better to keep it. /facepalm

  4. Oh this is a pain I feel too much. My boss (who has no eye design whatsoever) recently took it upon herself to design a Powerpoint template and asked for my (a person who is trained and experienced in graphic design) opinion. I told her to lose the Clipart (as ya’ do… vomit worthy). She then got into an argument with my as to why it’s better to keep it. /facepalm

  5. helpful perspective and well-rounded argument. personally – when in this situation – I’d prefer the “what designer wants to say” response as that’d actually provide me with the right kind of feedback but I can see how that might not go over so well in most scenarios…

    oh & cheers to me learning typeface is the right term (and not font).

    :)

  6. helpful perspective and well-rounded argument. personally – when in this situation – I’d prefer the “what designer wants to say” response as that’d actually provide me with the right kind of feedback but I can see how that might not go over so well in most scenarios…

    oh & cheers to me learning typeface is the right term (and not font).

    :)

  7. Heck of a rant, Colin. I’ve got several graphic designer and illustrator friends, and they’ve touched on this subject before. You’re right–as a freelancer, it’s important to sift through your projects and only pick ones that you know will “fit.”

  8. Heck of a rant, Colin. I’ve got several graphic designer and illustrator friends, and they’ve touched on this subject before. You’re right–as a freelancer, it’s important to sift through your projects and only pick ones that you know will “fit.”

  9. Hey Colin, great post! I am from the ‘uneducated in color theory, I say font – you say typeface’ camp. Since I started my apparel company I’ve been working with two designers, one from Norway and the other from Malaysia. The one from Norway speaks better English than the Malaysian girl so I like to brain storm with him regarding a design for a shirt. I recognize that he is much more creative than I am and try to give him as much free reign as possible, but at the same time, since I am paying him to create something I cannot (lack of technical no-how, creativty, etc.), I want to make sure I get a design that fits the ‘feel’ of my company.

    Do you find brainstorming reasonalbe with your clients? I do want to get a superior product, but reading your post has me worried that I may be changing too much of his original idea, colors, etc. For the last design (my logo) I had him change the color and other things. I will have to re-evaluate my expectations. Is there any other advice you could give the client (me) so as not to affend or insult the designer?

  10. Hey Colin, great post! I am from the ‘uneducated in color theory, I say font – you say typeface’ camp. Since I started my apparel company I’ve been working with two designers, one from Norway and the other from Malaysia. The one from Norway speaks better English than the Malaysian girl so I like to brain storm with him regarding a design for a shirt. I recognize that he is much more creative than I am and try to give him as much free reign as possible, but at the same time, since I am paying him to create something I cannot (lack of technical no-how, creativty, etc.), I want to make sure I get a design that fits the ‘feel’ of my company.

    Do you find brainstorming reasonalbe with your clients? I do want to get a superior product, but reading your post has me worried that I may be changing too much of his original idea, colors, etc. For the last design (my logo) I had him change the color and other things. I will have to re-evaluate my expectations. Is there any other advice you could give the client (me) so as not to affend or insult the designer?

  11. Very interesting post Colin, In fact it is a good picture of the reality around creative skills.

    Somehow I manage to escape this reality by a small hair. It is weird but I’m somewhat thankful because I don’t have to design here at my work. I just have to code.

    I can implement the solution the best way I think of without being pushed to change it, mostly because my boss doesn’t know about it.

    But I used to have a lot of clients where the picture drawn by their kids had to be used somehow in the design, I found myself being pushed to do changes without any logical reason.

    I still design, mostly for myself and my small studio, usually in collaboration with my brother. And so far life has been better. I don’t have to deal with that bullshit.

    I will still send this post to a lot of people, hopefully we can start a small change for some people.

  12. Very interesting post Colin, In fact it is a good picture of the reality around creative skills.

    Somehow I manage to escape this reality by a small hair. It is weird but I’m somewhat thankful because I don’t have to design here at my work. I just have to code.

    I can implement the solution the best way I think of without being pushed to change it, mostly because my boss doesn’t know about it.

    But I used to have a lot of clients where the picture drawn by their kids had to be used somehow in the design, I found myself being pushed to do changes without any logical reason.

    I still design, mostly for myself and my small studio, usually in collaboration with my brother. And so far life has been better. I don’t have to deal with that bullshit.

    I will still send this post to a lot of people, hopefully we can start a small change for some people.

  13. Ack! So well put, Colin. I am noticing this more and more the deeper I get into the branding work especially. I am lucky to have watched you have these conversations with clients and explain why things were designed the way they were, so rarely do I just reply ‘I’ll take another stab at it.’ But it’s intimidating within the bureaucratic system, particularly being hired as a contractor. Or maybe not, maybe that’s an advantage because you can fire your clients, too. But a difficult scenario to approach nonetheless.

    Powerful first couple of posts this month, man! Can’t wait to see what the rest of the month brings!

  14. Ack! So well put, Colin. I am noticing this more and more the deeper I get into the branding work especially. I am lucky to have watched you have these conversations with clients and explain why things were designed the way they were, so rarely do I just reply ‘I’ll take another stab at it.’ But it’s intimidating within the bureaucratic system, particularly being hired as a contractor. Or maybe not, maybe that’s an advantage because you can fire your clients, too. But a difficult scenario to approach nonetheless.

    Powerful first couple of posts this month, man! Can’t wait to see what the rest of the month brings!

  15. Great post, I totally agree. Micromanaging things that one does not understand is definitely wrong.

    I’m about to change position from a software developer into a project manager, and this is definitely something I’m going to keep in mind (even though in this case I would have the education and experience to actually provide opinions).

    Let’s leave the creative people to do what they are good at.

  16. Great post, I totally agree. Micromanaging things that one does not understand is definitely wrong.

    I’m about to change position from a software developer into a project manager, and this is definitely something I’m going to keep in mind (even though in this case I would have the education and experience to actually provide opinions).

    Let’s leave the creative people to do what they are good at.

  17. I work at a restaurant as a waiter, and the idea and practice of biting your tongue is not foreign to me. Society, man!

    A situation came up the other week where I accidentally spoke my mind in a way that could’ve seemed disrespectful to a superior. Never before have I wanted to work for myself more than in that very moment.

    It’ll be hard figuring out what I can do or create so I can operate and sustain myself, but I’ll be damned if I don’t figure it out.

  18. I work at a restaurant as a waiter, and the idea and practice of biting your tongue is not foreign to me. Society, man!

    A situation came up the other week where I accidentally spoke my mind in a way that could’ve seemed disrespectful to a superior. Never before have I wanted to work for myself more than in that very moment.

    It’ll be hard figuring out what I can do or create so I can operate and sustain myself, but I’ll be damned if I don’t figure it out.

  19. Yes yes and more yes. Exactly why I started my own business. I enjoy working with people, not for them. We make remixes for movie companies now, and are getting pretty darn good at it(hit the link!) Nice post.

  20. Yes yes and more yes. Exactly why I started my own business. I enjoy working with people, not for them. We make remixes for movie companies now, and are getting pretty darn good at it(hit the link!) Nice post.

  21. Ah Colin…yes, I feel your pain. Even at my small ad agency, we get this all the time. I can name a few clients off the top of my head who believed they possessed more knowledge than we did about design and it is so frustrating. I completely understand your rants. I’m not going to say who, but we had a client that took a beautiful ad we did and cut a square piece of paper with text and taped it in the middle of the photograph on the ad. They scanned it and sent it to us saying they thought it looked better and wanted it that way. I had to hold my tongue as I tried to explain how that would ruin the aesthetics of the ad…
    grrr!!

  22. Ah Colin…yes, I feel your pain. Even at my small ad agency, we get this all the time. I can name a few clients off the top of my head who believed they possessed more knowledge than we did about design and it is so frustrating. I completely understand your rants. I’m not going to say who, but we had a client that took a beautiful ad we did and cut a square piece of paper with text and taped it in the middle of the photograph on the ad. They scanned it and sent it to us saying they thought it looked better and wanted it that way. I had to hold my tongue as I tried to explain how that would ruin the aesthetics of the ad…
    grrr!!

  23. Boy oh boy… You said it.

    Ditto on the “this is why I’m an entrepreneur” line.

    If you haven’t read Linchpin by Seth Godin yet (his latest book), he echoes your thoughts completely, and adds a lot of valuable thoughts I think you’d enjoy.

  24. Boy oh boy… You said it.

    Ditto on the “this is why I’m an entrepreneur” line.

    If you haven’t read Linchpin by Seth Godin yet (his latest book), he echoes your thoughts completely, and adds a lot of valuable thoughts I think you’d enjoy.

  25. This post sums up exactly why I’ve been pursuing a purer strand of entrepreneurship in lieu of freelancing. I hated not having what I was doing respected. I hated more the types of clients who decided everything about their design before they even talked to me. I was sick of playing nice just to make a buck. Great post, Colin! Well said.

  26. This post sums up exactly why I’ve been pursuing a purer strand of entrepreneurship in lieu of freelancing. I hated not having what I was doing respected. I hated more the types of clients who decided everything about their design before they even talked to me. I was sick of playing nice just to make a buck. Great post, Colin! Well said.

  27. Good points, and this is the precise reason why creatives need to learn, learn, learn and relearn the process of “selling a design.” Verbally, for the most part, and also with good presentation.

    I rarely run into this problem anymore… partly because I’ve developed some really good Machiavellian creative selling strategies that almost read too manipulative for me to pen them.

  28. Good points, and this is the precise reason why creatives need to learn, learn, learn and relearn the process of “selling a design.” Verbally, for the most part, and also with good presentation.

    I rarely run into this problem anymore… partly because I’ve developed some really good Machiavellian creative selling strategies that almost read too manipulative for me to pen them.

  29. Also, I’m handing this out to my basic typography class as a lesson in how they need to improve the oral presentations of their projects. :)

  30. Also, I’m handing this out to my basic typography class as a lesson in how they need to improve the oral presentations of their projects. :)

  31. Haha, so I’ve been informed I’m an “analytical creative” meaning my mind is far too logistic to enforce filtered conversation. I’ll literally SAY to people “Huh, now what makes you think that is a good idea?” Not in a snippy or sarcastic way, just truly inquisitive cause I’m trying to understand where they are coming from.

    You’d be AMAZED how quickly that diffuses “creative input” on stuff. There’s really not much to discuss when you realize you don’t know what you are talking about. OR it lets them open up and say what’s REALLY wrong…seldomly is it what they see “as a problem” at first.

  32. Haha, so I’ve been informed I’m an “analytical creative” meaning my mind is far too logistic to enforce filtered conversation. I’ll literally SAY to people “Huh, now what makes you think that is a good idea?” Not in a snippy or sarcastic way, just truly inquisitive cause I’m trying to understand where they are coming from.

    You’d be AMAZED how quickly that diffuses “creative input” on stuff. There’s really not much to discuss when you realize you don’t know what you are talking about. OR it lets them open up and say what’s REALLY wrong…seldomly is it what they see “as a problem” at first.

  33. God I couldn’t agree more. As much as I like having a stable paycheck coming in, there is nothing like working for yourself and making your own damn decisions. It’s so important to sift through the crap clients, if you’re in demand of course…which …it sounds like you are :D.

  34. God I couldn’t agree more. As much as I like having a stable paycheck coming in, there is nothing like working for yourself and making your own damn decisions. It’s so important to sift through the crap clients, if you’re in demand of course…which …it sounds like you are :D.

  35. It makes a big difference whether the “middle manager” in question came up on the business side or the creative side. What you describe sounds like a manager from the business side. And… from that perspective I completely agree.

    The other argument is that of the Creative Director position. Creative Directors (ostensibly) understand the design and understand how to communicate it to the client. This isn’t to say that the designer can’t communicate this, but the designer brings an inherent conflict of interest to the table. Designers are always protective of their work (to varying degrees) because it is a part of them. The Creative Director understands this dynamic and the needs of the clients.

    Since the Creative Director is a higher level position AND is distanced to some extent from the design itself, they tend to be granted more credence by the client.

    If I was a designer, the perfect scenario would be having a Creative Director who had my back to deal with the client. Because… As a designer… I would just want to design. Granted, this doesn’t scale to tiny organizations.

  36. It makes a big difference whether the “middle manager” in question came up on the business side or the creative side. What you describe sounds like a manager from the business side. And… from that perspective I completely agree.

    The other argument is that of the Creative Director position. Creative Directors (ostensibly) understand the design and understand how to communicate it to the client. This isn’t to say that the designer can’t communicate this, but the designer brings an inherent conflict of interest to the table. Designers are always protective of their work (to varying degrees) because it is a part of them. The Creative Director understands this dynamic and the needs of the clients.

    Since the Creative Director is a higher level position AND is distanced to some extent from the design itself, they tend to be granted more credence by the client.

    If I was a designer, the perfect scenario would be having a Creative Director who had my back to deal with the client. Because… As a designer… I would just want to design. Granted, this doesn’t scale to tiny organizations.

  37. Don’t get mad, get even :)

    I’m a fan of setting the goals and getting out of the way. When people know what good looks like, then it’s creative flexibility to respond to the challenge, and that’s where work meets full engagement + flow + creative genius.

    I do see way too many folks limited by limiting leaders and it’s a dad burn shame. (I’m assuming I can say dad burn it.)

  38. Don’t get mad, get even :)

    I’m a fan of setting the goals and getting out of the way. When people know what good looks like, then it’s creative flexibility to respond to the challenge, and that’s where work meets full engagement + flow + creative genius.

    I do see way too many folks limited by limiting leaders and it’s a dad burn shame. (I’m assuming I can say dad burn it.)

  39. Amen brotha! This is exactly the reason why I’m working to be in your position. I came to the realization a while back that it is better to have clients than to have a boss. At least clients will let you decide how you do your work. I’ve never understood why you would hire somebody and pay them good money to do a job if you are not going to let them do it. If the boss is that involved then they are either guilty of micro-management or do not give their employees proper direction. I have worked for MANY different bosses. Some great and many shitty! The great ones, and usually the ones climbing the fastest, let me do my thing and reaped the most benefits.

  40. Amen brotha! This is exactly the reason why I’m working to be in your position. I came to the realization a while back that it is better to have clients than to have a boss. At least clients will let you decide how you do your work. I’ve never understood why you would hire somebody and pay them good money to do a job if you are not going to let them do it. If the boss is that involved then they are either guilty of micro-management or do not give their employees proper direction. I have worked for MANY different bosses. Some great and many shitty! The great ones, and usually the ones climbing the fastest, let me do my thing and reaped the most benefits.

  41. Wow. This is spot on.

    I can’t wait to get out of the corporate design culture. There’s too much “design-by-committee” and for some reason the “committee” doesn’t always include a designer.

  42. Wow. This is spot on.

    I can’t wait to get out of the corporate design culture. There’s too much “design-by-committee” and for some reason the “committee” doesn’t always include a designer.

  43. Wow this sort of stuff is so true! I’m still a student but know what this is like from previous work. I think that scarily the solution is for semi-creative semi-business types to fill the gap. But that is unlikely to happen so indeed the management types need to let Designers do what they were trained to do.

  44. Wow this sort of stuff is so true! I’m still a student but know what this is like from previous work. I think that scarily the solution is for semi-creative semi-business types to fill the gap. But that is unlikely to happen so indeed the management types need to let Designers do what they were trained to do.

  45. Colin, you rocked that post!
    This is precisely why I phased out design from my freelance work and started a company that focuses solely on video. I still get to use my design skills, but I find clients are much less likely to make stupid changes when it’s in video format.
    Keep up the good work!

  46. Colin, you rocked that post!
    This is precisely why I phased out design from my freelance work and started a company that focuses solely on video. I still get to use my design skills, but I find clients are much less likely to make stupid changes when it’s in video format.
    Keep up the good work!

  47. I have seen this… and it drove me and my fellow designer colleagues to have “bitch-rants” (one way to cope). Explaining why such-and-such useless change wouldn’t work or just physically impossible is pointless. I was often told, “just do what you’re told”.
    Oh and as for the person that said people are less likely to make stupid changes to video- I beg to differ. They manage to stick their 2 cents in there too because they have Windows Movie Maker at home and so they know about video editing. I think I’m going to go jump off a cliff now.

  48. I have seen this… and it drove me and my fellow designer colleagues to have “bitch-rants” (one way to cope). Explaining why such-and-such useless change wouldn’t work or just physically impossible is pointless. I was often told, “just do what you’re told”.
    Oh and as for the person that said people are less likely to make stupid changes to video- I beg to differ. They manage to stick their 2 cents in there too because they have Windows Movie Maker at home and so they know about video editing. I think I’m going to go jump off a cliff now.

  49. Captured perfectly exactly why I started my own business and only take on the clients I feel resonate with my style and work ethic.

    Even still, though, it’s difficult to tell clients that their opinion is wrong when you have to deliver on something they are paying you to do. I’m sure you have experience with that and would love to hear your thoughts on it.

  50. Captured perfectly exactly why I started my own business and only take on the clients I feel resonate with my style and work ethic.

    Even still, though, it’s difficult to tell clients that their opinion is wrong when you have to deliver on something they are paying you to do. I’m sure you have experience with that and would love to hear your thoughts on it.

  51. @Kyle: True, that does help some of the time. What’s sad is that creatives have to spend as much or more of their time trying to trick someone else into saying what they (as creatives) already know. If you don’t trick them, they’ll destroy what you created. There’s something very wrong with this.

    @Off-Campus Student: I feel your pain. First of all having to help anyone make a Powerpoint look good, second for having to convince someone why clip-art is not the answer. It’s like trying to tell someone why they shouldn’t use Comic Sans. If they’re worth convincing in the first place, it should be self-evident.

    @amber rae lambke: Glad someone prefers that! Ideally we’ll be in a situation where it’s not necessary, but it would still be better if we could have open dialogues rather than keeping it in for fear of being fired! Also: a good rule of thumb is to think of a typeface like the song, while a font is like the mp3…it’s the filetype that holds the object.

    @Alan: Thanks, Alan, glad to know it struck a chord!

    @Richard: Hey Richard, thanks for touching on this end of the conversation! I think brainstorming is great with a client! In fact, I prefer it that way. When it comes to design, honestly, if the client has a good idea I will always make it and thank them for their input…we’re designers, not gods, and we do make mistakes (some of us more than others!). That being said, if the designer has a good reason for having done something a certain way, I say let him or her have their say and explain why. If they can’t tell you why, and you think it looks/works better another way, have them make the change, compare it, and go with it. It’s important to remember that not all designers are so keen to do the best work possible – I’d say most are probably just trying to make a buck and not be bored out of their minds – so if you can prod them to do BETTER work by allowing more freedom and by making it clear that you value their input, I can almost guarantee you’ll see better results. Kudos to you for caring!

    @Alejandro: That’s great, Alejandro. Always nice to hear about someone escaping this harsh reality. It is nice with coding, too, because it’s considered less subjective than design (which, most good designers will tell you, is an overstatement…a high quality design suits the function first, and when someone changes that function, it’s no longer good, no arguing over opinions or preferences about how it looks will change that), though I know a lot of people who deal with the kind of thing you mentioned. Hopefully moving forward we can all take a step back and realize how crazy this system is!

    @Kristin: Thanks Kristin! Always interesting to hear what my first and most promising design student has to say about the industry :)

    @Timo: Word, Timo! Word. It’s great that you will be in a position to influence things, know what you are talking about but also allow those under you to express their opinions. Best. Boss. Ever!

    @Tim: You’ll make it happen, Tim, because you have to. Clearly you know there’s a wider world out there, and that very fact will keep you pushing and working and striving until you get where you want. Be sure to shoot me an email if there’s anything I can do to help you out from this end.

    @B: Really cool stuff! Great job breaking out and breaking molds!

    @Alexandria: That kind of thing always makes me wonder – why don’t they just do it themselves? I think most clients that do what you described are looking for validation…they want to be told they have good ideas by someone else who really does rather than just picking up some Photoshop skills and doing it themselves, saving a whole lot of money in the process. Designers are not just Photoshop-operators! Shout it from the rooftops!

    @Tyler: I actually did read Linchpin, and the entire time I was reading it I was mouthing ‘Yes!’ “Exactly!’ and other exclamatories that were likely quite hilarious for having been uttered in public places.

    @J.D. Bentley: Thanks buddy! It’s possible to do freelancing under other circumstances, but it can take a while to get the kind of respect you deserve from clients. In any case you seem to be doing well with the entrepreneurship thing! We need to catch up soon!

    @Jesse: Haha, good to hear! It’s funny, because I learned so much about the philosophy and practice of creating designs back at our Alma Mater, but not a damn thing about the business. I’m glad I worked so many jobs through college, because otherwise I would have been completely in the dark about how it works (this is not to say I don’t appreciate what my brilliant professors had to teach me, but most are more than a little socialistic, and gave advice like ‘Why do you need to work in college? Take out loan!’). I’m sure your students are getting a really solid design business foundation as well, though!

    @Elisa: Hahaha, that’s a great idea! I’m going to recommend that everyone try this next time they come across that kind of client. Deconstruct and take apart illogical arguments. The only trouble I’ve had with this in the past is that they’ll give me the ol’ “I don’t know why, I just feel it” nonsense, to which I reply “Well I know why you’re feeling that, it’s this, and this is what you WANT your viewers to be thinking.”

    @Amber: Life is way too short to deal with clients who don’t value what you do. That’s all there is to it!

    @Andrew: Good point. The thing is, I’ve known MANY Creative Directors who come from the business side..that title unfortunately has taken on a honorary shine – much like being knighted in the UK – as opposed to what it originally was supposed to stand for (a creative who has moved into a managerial role). That being said, your ideal situation is my ideal (supposing I still worked for someone else) as well. Having that ‘older brother/sister’ who could give you valuable advice on your craft, help you negotiate the rocky channels of the industry, and clear the way for your work to shine…well that would be just about perfect, wouldn’t it? Let’s get more of those!

    @J.D. Meier: Exactly! Also: I don’t think I’ve ever seen ‘dad burn it’ used anywhere, and I think I’m going to start using it now. Thanks for the creative cursing!

    @Dan: The unfortunate thing is that there are actually MANY clients who won’t want you to do you work the right way, they want you to do it THEIR way. What’s great about clients over bosses, though, is that you get to fire them, not the other way around :)

    @Adam: Ugh, I hate hate hate design by committee. What’s really strange is that a lot of places know they are doing this, and know it reaps inferior results, but they continue to do it because corporate culture revolves around never being the one person to blame…this leads to responsibility being spread over committees and groups and clubs and whatever else they want to call them to make it seem like they’re just getting together for fun, not to keep themselves from being strung-up for their mistakes. LAME.

    @John: I think there need to be more business-savvy designers, and I’m actually thinking of starting up some kind of online course for this very purpose. The more independent we can make designers, the more likely they’ll be to stand up for good work, the more beautiful and purposeful our environment will be.

    @Nate: Thanks Nate! Hope the video work keeps going strong!

    @Andy: Oh, I remember the bitch-rant (I sometimes still have them, though it’s about other peoples’ situations now, thankfully). It simply is impossible to change for some people, and what’s sad is that they know that if you won’t create the terrible crap they want, someone else will, and likely for less money. Many people see this as the end of design, but I see it as an opportunity to set yourself apart! There will always be people from all over the world on elance and guru willing to sell themselves to the lowest bidder, but you, YOU can promote yourself as someone who does good work for good money. People get what they pay for, and trust me when I say that more opportunities open up when you increase the value you give to the client and the monetary compensation you ask in return. Move toward the top, don’t race toward the bottom!

    @Jamie: I tend to be super-logical with a client when they want unreasonable changes. I’ll explain why it should be a certain way. Then I’ll diagram it. Then I’ll write a lengthy email explaining it in a different way. Sometimes I’ll put together a board showing why people have done something in the past (or why they shouldn’t have). I’ll give case studies. Basically I give every opportunity for the person to say ‘oh, I get it now.’ If they won’t, then their decision is very likely irrational and for some reason other than wanting to get the best possible work, so I’ll drop them. There have been exceptions – projects where the money has been ridiculous and my name wouldn’t be on the project and it wasn’t getting in the way of other more fulfilling projects – but those are few and far between, thankfully.

  52. @Kyle: True, that does help some of the time. What’s sad is that creatives have to spend as much or more of their time trying to trick someone else into saying what they (as creatives) already know. If you don’t trick them, they’ll destroy what you created. There’s something very wrong with this.

    @Off-Campus Student: I feel your pain. First of all having to help anyone make a Powerpoint look good, second for having to convince someone why clip-art is not the answer. It’s like trying to tell someone why they shouldn’t use Comic Sans. If they’re worth convincing in the first place, it should be self-evident.

    @amber rae lambke: Glad someone prefers that! Ideally we’ll be in a situation where it’s not necessary, but it would still be better if we could have open dialogues rather than keeping it in for fear of being fired! Also: a good rule of thumb is to think of a typeface like the song, while a font is like the mp3…it’s the filetype that holds the object.

    @Alan: Thanks, Alan, glad to know it struck a chord!

    @Richard: Hey Richard, thanks for touching on this end of the conversation! I think brainstorming is great with a client! In fact, I prefer it that way. When it comes to design, honestly, if the client has a good idea I will always make it and thank them for their input…we’re designers, not gods, and we do make mistakes (some of us more than others!). That being said, if the designer has a good reason for having done something a certain way, I say let him or her have their say and explain why. If they can’t tell you why, and you think it looks/works better another way, have them make the change, compare it, and go with it. It’s important to remember that not all designers are so keen to do the best work possible – I’d say most are probably just trying to make a buck and not be bored out of their minds – so if you can prod them to do BETTER work by allowing more freedom and by making it clear that you value their input, I can almost guarantee you’ll see better results. Kudos to you for caring!

    @Alejandro: That’s great, Alejandro. Always nice to hear about someone escaping this harsh reality. It is nice with coding, too, because it’s considered less subjective than design (which, most good designers will tell you, is an overstatement…a high quality design suits the function first, and when someone changes that function, it’s no longer good, no arguing over opinions or preferences about how it looks will change that), though I know a lot of people who deal with the kind of thing you mentioned. Hopefully moving forward we can all take a step back and realize how crazy this system is!

    @Kristin: Thanks Kristin! Always interesting to hear what my first and most promising design student has to say about the industry :)

    @Timo: Word, Timo! Word. It’s great that you will be in a position to influence things, know what you are talking about but also allow those under you to express their opinions. Best. Boss. Ever!

    @Tim: You’ll make it happen, Tim, because you have to. Clearly you know there’s a wider world out there, and that very fact will keep you pushing and working and striving until you get where you want. Be sure to shoot me an email if there’s anything I can do to help you out from this end.

    @B: Really cool stuff! Great job breaking out and breaking molds!

    @Alexandria: That kind of thing always makes me wonder – why don’t they just do it themselves? I think most clients that do what you described are looking for validation…they want to be told they have good ideas by someone else who really does rather than just picking up some Photoshop skills and doing it themselves, saving a whole lot of money in the process. Designers are not just Photoshop-operators! Shout it from the rooftops!

    @Tyler: I actually did read Linchpin, and the entire time I was reading it I was mouthing ‘Yes!’ “Exactly!’ and other exclamatories that were likely quite hilarious for having been uttered in public places.

    @J.D. Bentley: Thanks buddy! It’s possible to do freelancing under other circumstances, but it can take a while to get the kind of respect you deserve from clients. In any case you seem to be doing well with the entrepreneurship thing! We need to catch up soon!

    @Jesse: Haha, good to hear! It’s funny, because I learned so much about the philosophy and practice of creating designs back at our Alma Mater, but not a damn thing about the business. I’m glad I worked so many jobs through college, because otherwise I would have been completely in the dark about how it works (this is not to say I don’t appreciate what my brilliant professors had to teach me, but most are more than a little socialistic, and gave advice like ‘Why do you need to work in college? Take out loan!’). I’m sure your students are getting a really solid design business foundation as well, though!

    @Elisa: Hahaha, that’s a great idea! I’m going to recommend that everyone try this next time they come across that kind of client. Deconstruct and take apart illogical arguments. The only trouble I’ve had with this in the past is that they’ll give me the ol’ “I don’t know why, I just feel it” nonsense, to which I reply “Well I know why you’re feeling that, it’s this, and this is what you WANT your viewers to be thinking.”

    @Amber: Life is way too short to deal with clients who don’t value what you do. That’s all there is to it!

    @Andrew: Good point. The thing is, I’ve known MANY Creative Directors who come from the business side..that title unfortunately has taken on a honorary shine – much like being knighted in the UK – as opposed to what it originally was supposed to stand for (a creative who has moved into a managerial role). That being said, your ideal situation is my ideal (supposing I still worked for someone else) as well. Having that ‘older brother/sister’ who could give you valuable advice on your craft, help you negotiate the rocky channels of the industry, and clear the way for your work to shine…well that would be just about perfect, wouldn’t it? Let’s get more of those!

    @J.D. Meier: Exactly! Also: I don’t think I’ve ever seen ‘dad burn it’ used anywhere, and I think I’m going to start using it now. Thanks for the creative cursing!

    @Dan: The unfortunate thing is that there are actually MANY clients who won’t want you to do you work the right way, they want you to do it THEIR way. What’s great about clients over bosses, though, is that you get to fire them, not the other way around :)

    @Adam: Ugh, I hate hate hate design by committee. What’s really strange is that a lot of places know they are doing this, and know it reaps inferior results, but they continue to do it because corporate culture revolves around never being the one person to blame…this leads to responsibility being spread over committees and groups and clubs and whatever else they want to call them to make it seem like they’re just getting together for fun, not to keep themselves from being strung-up for their mistakes. LAME.

    @John: I think there need to be more business-savvy designers, and I’m actually thinking of starting up some kind of online course for this very purpose. The more independent we can make designers, the more likely they’ll be to stand up for good work, the more beautiful and purposeful our environment will be.

    @Nate: Thanks Nate! Hope the video work keeps going strong!

    @Andy: Oh, I remember the bitch-rant (I sometimes still have them, though it’s about other peoples’ situations now, thankfully). It simply is impossible to change for some people, and what’s sad is that they know that if you won’t create the terrible crap they want, someone else will, and likely for less money. Many people see this as the end of design, but I see it as an opportunity to set yourself apart! There will always be people from all over the world on elance and guru willing to sell themselves to the lowest bidder, but you, YOU can promote yourself as someone who does good work for good money. People get what they pay for, and trust me when I say that more opportunities open up when you increase the value you give to the client and the monetary compensation you ask in return. Move toward the top, don’t race toward the bottom!

    @Jamie: I tend to be super-logical with a client when they want unreasonable changes. I’ll explain why it should be a certain way. Then I’ll diagram it. Then I’ll write a lengthy email explaining it in a different way. Sometimes I’ll put together a board showing why people have done something in the past (or why they shouldn’t have). I’ll give case studies. Basically I give every opportunity for the person to say ‘oh, I get it now.’ If they won’t, then their decision is very likely irrational and for some reason other than wanting to get the best possible work, so I’ll drop them. There have been exceptions – projects where the money has been ridiculous and my name wouldn’t be on the project and it wasn’t getting in the way of other more fulfilling projects – but those are few and far between, thankfully.

  53. Loved this rant. There was once in Sep 09 I was hired (after being chased after for over 2 years). The one and only time I suggested an improvement (by simplifying unnecessary elements on a corporate website), I got screwed and called “incompetent” by one of the senior guys there.

    Left in late Nov 09, and the world is a better place today. ;)

  54. Loved this rant. There was once in Sep 09 I was hired (after being chased after for over 2 years). The one and only time I suggested an improvement (by simplifying unnecessary elements on a corporate website), I got screwed and called “incompetent” by one of the senior guys there.

    Left in late Nov 09, and the world is a better place today. ;)

  55. Oh, once you misplace your filter you can just leave it there. My response to “I don’t know” is just more pressing. It’s nice to have the root in client based selling too. Just keep turning it around on them. “Well, I really want to understand where you are coming from so I design/write/manifest this correctly. Otherwise I’ll just keep wasting your time and I don’t want to do that. Pick out the 2 things you want to change the most.” Then I shut up, let them talk, cock my head and say “Ok, now why?” It’s crazy but it works!

  56. Oh, once you misplace your filter you can just leave it there. My response to “I don’t know” is just more pressing. It’s nice to have the root in client based selling too. Just keep turning it around on them. “Well, I really want to understand where you are coming from so I design/write/manifest this correctly. Otherwise I’ll just keep wasting your time and I don’t want to do that. Pick out the 2 things you want to change the most.” Then I shut up, let them talk, cock my head and say “Ok, now why?” It’s crazy but it works!

  57. Or do what I decided to do, be a creative for myself ;) So I make the projects up and the rules :) Works much better for me. I just can’t do it…work for other people telling me what to do, including creatives ;)

  58. Or do what I decided to do, be a creative for myself ;) So I make the projects up and the rules :) Works much better for me. I just can’t do it…work for other people telling me what to do, including creatives ;)

  59. I too decided to start my own studio, in part to deal with this… in part.

    I think the real conflict here is NOT the hierarchy and the way we get pushed around my middle management. I think the real issue is that creatives have two choices: freelance (or incorporate) your own work, and have endless job insecurity; or two, tolerate this kind of stuff at 1 company in exchange for decent benefits and pay.

    I am beginning to think that we should stop agreeing to work in the office and always work on retainer or as contractors. First of all, it's easier to be in control of that situation – because you're not an employee, per se. And second of all, it's critically damaging to a creatives' portfolio to work for one company.

    I see nothing wrong with changing things (within reason) and I like the comment below about asking, “Why?” I think there is a balance, just as there is between, say, tech and middle managers who are not tech folks. Same thing. But, we still get screwed, because even if we strike the balance, we're doing one type of work in one vein with few variations, and that stunts our growth and our ability to move on to the next better thing.

    That, to me, is the real issue today, especially in 2010, and it's the reason I started my own company. If we grow, as I hope we do in the next few years, I want to create a space for people to grow their careers, not ruin them – or ruin their perception OF careers. Also a shame!

  60. @Jamie
    Could have written what you wrote myself.

    The line between “you hired me for my skill, experience and knowledge about this, so have some faith” and “the client is always right, they're paying” is an extremely tricky one.

    I think the key, as others have said, is to work for those who “get it”. But when stuck with the other sort, I often try the refrain “let's keep the discussion objective and relate the points of feedback to the goals of the project and to your business goals”. Sometimes that works. Sometimes the client STILL hates blue.

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  62. The same thing has happened to me as a freelance designer. I’ve actually had a client (huge corporate design company) ask me to make my design “less aggressive” and put some pastel colours on it, when customers thought it was a kid’s product they asked me to change it back to my original “edgy” design. Part of the problem is that bigger companies are so out of touch and underestimate the taste of the consumer. Having said that, I do believe that just because you went to school for something doesn’t mean you are good at it. Especially these days. I see so many young designers coming out of school thinking they’re the shit, but when I look at their portfolios, my jaw drops because their confidence does not match up the low standard of their work. 

  63. The same thing has happened to me as a freelance designer. I’ve actually had a client (huge corporate design company) ask me to make my design “less aggressive” and put some pastel colours on it, when customers thought it was a kid’s product they asked me to change it back to my original “edgy” design. Part of the problem is that bigger companies are so out of touch and underestimate the taste of the consumer. Having said that, I do believe that just because you went to school for something doesn’t mean you are good at it. Especially these days. I see so many young designers coming out of school thinking they’re the shit, but when I look at their portfolios, my jaw drops because their confidence does not match up the low standard of their work. 

  64. Hey, 

    I know its kind of outdated but I really wanted to leave a comment on this. 

    I agree with your post for the most part. To give you a background, I have a bachelors in computers science. So while I know how to develop software, I’m not an expert by any stretch. I have no academic background in design. 

    That said, following the decision to start a company, I was naturally thrown into a situation where I was i) required to help developers solve programming problems theoretically and technically ii) I was required to help designers come up with designs meet client requirements. 

    I’m a firm believer of letting the experts exercise their expertise and not butting in until (now here is the tricky bit) ….

    In a third world country, not everyone is part of a profession by choice. The more likely reasons for people to adopt a profession (usually hastily jumping into one and then sticking to it for life) is: 
    a) Family pressure
    b) To support their families
    c) Because their sibling, father, cousin is a professional in this domain
    d) Father owns this business
    e) … 
    f) ..

    and a few others but none being along the lines of this being something that they enjoy doing and hence strive hard to become good at it. 

    The result, we end up with a pool (albeit, this isn’t always the case, but at most times) of resources who aren’t either up to date with contemporary design standards or developers who aren’t that good at problem solving / development. 

    I understand that by now you’d be thinking that I should only take up as much work as I can personally manager or as much as the ‘good people’ that I can find can manage. But I assure you that its incredibly difficult to get such resources because:
    a) They’re snapped up with the giants by paying them really hi salaries (deservedly so). Though if a resource is that good, I don’t mind matching that.
    b) The rampant aversion to risk in our society simply scares good resources from start ups / SMEs (even if they’re making hi end offers) out of fear of the company closing down or not being able to sustain them. 

    End result:
    We end up having to work with resources who aren’t the best at their trait and what follows is the ‘managerial butting in’. 

    I try and keep it as friendly as possible, making them feel the creative heads and trying to put things forth as suggestions rather than orders and all that jazz. But the fact remains, the creative activity ends up being surreal and interrupted. 

    To come back to my point earlier, I agree with your point that (good) experts MUST be allowed to do exercise their creative skills, I’m not really sure if that concept is applicable universally. 

    What do you think? 

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  66. Well I am strarting a major Theme Park in South Africa and have a creative Director in mind. To your opinion to who should this director report to. I have a marketing director ect and what should his duties be in this project

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