Posted on March 2, 2010 by Colin

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.