Design Career

Your Design Work Is Owned By Your Client, and That’s OK.


Last night I was having a conversation with someone who entered the professional field of graphic design a few years ago. The said designer was griping about client input, changes, feedback and a lack of immediate recognition of the genius of their work. I tried to explain that what they don’t teach you in art school is, this is the nature of the job.

Over the last 25 years there are a few things I have learned about being a designer. Most, well all of it actually was never taught in art school. In art school they never explain to you that in the real world when you are working on an assignment that you are getting paid for, you no longer “own” it. When you take on a job, you are working for a client. When the client is paying you, their input is equal to yours. Like it or not. There are exceptions to this rule, you know, if you are one the chosen design greats that never gets questioned. (even designers like Stefan Sagmeister, Chip Kidd, Paula Scher, Michael Bierut, David Carson, Jacqueline Casey, Ruth Ansel, Herbert Matter, Alvin Lustig, Lillian Bassman, and Milton Glaser, get questioned by clients, make changes, and accept client feedback.)

The reality is, if you want to produce work that you never have to change. If you think your work is so good it doesn’t require or accept feedback, you might want to think about changing careers. Like all forms of the visual arts, especially the commercial paying arts, the perception of your work is subjective. There are no guidelines on taste. One persons black velvet Elvis is another’s Picasso, and once you present your work to the public you no longer own it. The public, and your client does. Because they own it, they can do with it as they please, and with that comes commentary, praise, loathing, judgement, or worse total indifference to the work you have slaved over. It is an unfortunate fact about working in this industry, and one they never teach you in school. It is a lesson you learn on the job, as you grow your career over time.

The point of all of this is, you need to look at your work not just from your perspective, but from the public perspective as well. This is critical if you want to succeed. You aren’t making art, you’re making money from your aesthetic choices, critical thinking,  problem solving, and your ability to sell that. With that said you won’t always win every battle. In the end however, you might be a bit happier if you realize there are things you can do to ease the pain.

First; It’s not about awards. To many are in it to collect the most awards possible, for bragging rights. Stop looking for praise and create work that is meaningful to you, and your client. Create work that solves the problem, not work that gets you liked on Dribble.

Second; Do the absolute best work you can do every single time no matter what the job is, or no matter how many changes the client requests. If you are phoning it in, everyone is going to know.

Third; You need to understand and remember from the start, if you are getting paid the client owns your ideas in the end. If you want to keep your work precious, and never change anything you need to lock it away and keep it out of the public eye. If your client wants you to use yellow, brown and red, you use yellow, brown and red. Even if you hate that color combination.

Fourth; You get the strikes when selling your idea to your client. Three, that’s it. If your ideas don’t resonate with your client by the third time you pitch them, the client has stopped listening to you. Give it up, ask the client more questions about what they are looking for, and start over. You haven’t failed. Like I said earlier this is all subjective. Sometimes things just don’t resonate with others the way they do with you.

Fifth; You aren’t curing cancer, ending world hunger, or ending global climate change. No one has ever died from a or bad logo design, or a crappy page layout. You need to stop taking yourself so seriously. 80 percent of our work ends up on the cutting room floor by the time it’s all said and done.

Sixth; If you are an creative director, art director, or  senior designer, your job is improve the design work presented to you. You don’t need to make it your own, or pee all over it. Your job is to help the designer improve the work by tweaking it into greatness. Designers, you need to listen and learn from what the CD, AD and senior level designers are telling you. All of this is a collaborative process, and believe it or not, collaboration is a good thing.

Seventh; Building on what I just said, collaboration can produce the most amazing results. It often produces the best end results. You don’t always have to have things your way. Working with others and building on collaborative ideas is something all designers should practice.

Eighth; Stop thinking of constraints as a pain in the neck, and treat them like a design challenge. There will always be constraints. From budgets to the number of colors you can use, to file size, to time, whatever. Embrace it and think of it as a problem you have to solve with the amazing skill set you possess. In the end you and your client will be thankful you did.

Ninth; If you aren’t having fun, it’s time to think about a career change. Seriously, life is too short. You spend at least 8 hours a day doing your job. If you don’t love what you are doing, it’s time to switch careers and start doing something you do love. This is applicable to any career, not just that of design.

Tenth; Keep an open mind. Influences come from everywhere and everyone. Sometimes, even your client might suggest something that is profound, enlightening, or influential in the final outcome of your assignment. Just because they are the client, doesn’t mean they are design ignorant, or the enemy. If you keep an open mind and look at all the input you will have a much better relationship with your client, and you’ll get more work. People talk, and you want your clients telling everyone how great you are to work with, and how you did the best job in the world for them.

With all that said, there are no hard fast rules. This isn’t a manifesto, it’s simply common sense  gleaned from experience that will hopefully help ease the pain of  working in a field of subjective ideas, revisions, and input from others.

A Few Suggestions For a Succesful Year as a Designer

As 2010 starts out, many people are facing the reality of either starting a new job or a new career. Below are a few common sense rules that I am going to try to follow through out the course of the next year. While I have listed these in reference to a career in design, they are applicable to almost any job.

• Find the right place to gain as much experience as possible in the shortest amount of time that you can. This may mean a small  independent design studio, a large agency or it could be hopping jobs every 2 years depending on what’s available in your area.

• Work in a place that is worthy of your time and talent. Don’t settle for any job. If you settle, you won’t learn anything. You’ll be depressed and resentful, and that means no room for growth.

• Put more effort into your job than expected and do it cheerfully. If you are the whiner or the person that just does the status quo, you will be perceived as less valuable. Like it or not, this is the way it works. It’s human nature.

• Be generous with your contributions to the team’s work. Do not try to take credit for every idea you came up with. It’s a team effort. The mark of a true leader is a person that gives credit when credit is due. It shows professional maturity, and makes you look like a champion of others skills and talents.

• Become the most positive and enthusiastic designer at your workplace. A positive attitude does more to sell your skills than just about any other thing you can do.

• Be forgiving of yourself and the people you work with. Everyone makes mistakes even when they only have good intentions. Don’t let your mistakes or the mistakes of others make you lose sight of long-term goals.

• Commit yourself to quality. Never settle for something less than your very best. Perfect what you do, become a master at your craft.

• Persistence pays off. Great work never just falls into your lap. You need to work for it, refine it, perfect it.

• If you clearly see you’re going into the wrong direction with your strategy do not be afraid to stop and rethink everything. This means even if you have to start everything from scratch. Better to get it perfect then turn in shoddy work that undermines your skills.

• Discipline yourself to save money on even a modest salary. This will give you the freedom to change jobs when things go bad and will allow you to take meaningful breaks that refresh your mind and body. Think about the age-old story of the ant and the grasshopper.

• Don’t blame others. If you’re unhappy about something take the initiative to change instead of whining about it. Nobody likes a finger pointer, and you never know when you might end up working for the people you are complaining about. The design world is a tight community, and you can never predict who you might be working for or with in the future.

• Commit yourself to constant improvement. Technology and the industry changing very quickly. You have to keep up. This means carving out time to learn new skills, software, strategies, etc. If you don’t keep learning and improving, you will fall behind.

• Treat your colleagues and clients with respect. Your professional happiness isn’t based on the number of awards you have or how much money you make.  It’s based on the relationships you have with your colleagues and clients. Treat them with respect, and they will respect you. It’s a two-way street.

• Be loyal to your clients and your employer. It will be appreciated even by the competition. If you go around bashing your employer, the people you work with, a client you have, this all comes back around. The world is a much smaller place these days. If you shoot your mouth off, it will get overheard or spread by someone else.

• Be a self-starter. If you identify an idea take charge and go for it. This shows that you are a leader, and that you have the kind of business acumen that leads to success.

• Be decisive even if it means you’re sometimes going to be wrong. Trial and error are the best ways to get experience, learn and grow. I don’t know of a single individual in the creative field that has hit a home run every time. Failure is a great tool that can help you learn, and contrary to popular belief failing isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s called trial and error.

• Be bold and courageous with your work. When you look back on your professional life, you will regret the things you didn’t try more than the one you did.

• Don’t take all advice for granted. Pick what’s useful for you. Make up your own rules and change them at your will. It’s your life and your career. The more experience you have, the more the rules will change. As you gain more and more experience your role will begin to shift from advice getter, to advice giver. That shift is more powerful than you think, because you become the source of influence for a younger generation of designers starting out.