Awhile back, I was invited to contribute to a well-read design blog called Design Observer, and in July I published my first piece there. Admittedly, it was a tad unusual: a satirical review of the Pixar movie Cars that posited that the movie was actually propaganda for the neo-Creationist philosophy known as Intelligent Design. It was my way of critiquing the movie; I simply couched it in a rather absurd notion about its propagandist intent for humorous effect. And obviously I was inviting some controversy by attacking two institutions: Pixar, and "the Right." What followed was a pretty unanimous sentiment in the comments that I wasn't funny, that people didn't get it, and, in essence, that I was an a**hole. Offline, several people told me they loved it and got the joke, so I knew I wasn't that far off the mark. Regardless, the negative comments made for an entertaining read, and they got me thinking about the importance of having a thick skin.
Any tenured designer worth their salt will tell you that a huge part of our jobs has nothing to do with coming up with ideas and giving them visual life. Rather, the more delicate task of selling those ideas can take up as much or even more of our time. Usually, we first have to sell our colleagues on our work, and from there we move on to the clients. Neither of these gauntlets is for the thin-skinned. Our peers, being creative and similarly skilled, test ideas conceptually and visually, based on design principles and established methods of communication. Our clients, on the other hand, offer criticism founded in a knowledge of their business and their customers (we hope). But their personal taste almost inevitably, and understandably, enters the conversation. And because they're writing the checks, we often have to accommodate even the silliest whim. The key is to design it well, while still satisfying the client.
Regardless, we are constantly being tested and questioned, and if we intend to be great at what we do, we take our lumps and then some. After all, criticism is the heat that tempers our ideas and forges them into steel. Those among us who shut their ears to it out of pride or ego—or worse, those who become defensive as if personally under attack—fail to advance their careers and our profession.
None of what I've said thus far is particularly revelatory, granted. But let it serve as a foreword for what I'm about to say, and I'm talking to the client side now: if you can't be open to criticism from our camp, just as we are from yours, be prepared for our relationship to bear rotten fruit. This is especially true when we've been hired to rebrand your company or otherwise overhaul some existing piece of communication. Bringing something to us that you want to be redesigned is a pretty reliable sign you know it needs it. And yet, all too often, when we start our work by identifying the missteps that were taken, we're met with defensiveness, excuses, and red tape. When such attitudes persist, you get the same piece of garbage you brought in, or something just as bad. Occasionally within that environment, we're allowed to make a few improvements, but it's usually nothing more than lipstick on a pig.
It never fails to surprise me that clients pursue new relationships with design firms under the pretense that they're looking to change what they have, but then prevent those changes from happening due to deeply entrenched expectations and predispositions. If you were a chef, wouldn't you want someone to let you know that a sardine crostini shouldn't be served on cinnamon raisin bread? If you were a lawyer, shouldn't someone inform you that drafting legal documents in Comic Sans is inappropriate?
A couple years back, I was working at a small design studio. We were hired by an architect to create the signage for a school his firm was designing. The school's mission was to educate autistic children in a specialized environment. It was a very homespun operation. The founders and board members were mostly well-meaning parents of autistic kids, and wealthy enough to get it off the ground. Despite having a savvy and passionate personnel, they had managed to cobble together only a rather shabby facility. Their new building, however, was designed to be world class.
In our estimation, their logo was as shabby as their facility, and needed an overhaul to match the new architecture. The logo had been designed in-house by a board member, and was a drawing of a squat tree that, due to its scarce branches and foliage, looked more like it was dying than thriving. Additionally, their name—which evoked specific imagery completely unrelated to trees, by the way—had never been consistently handled typographically.
We were hired to do signage, but we proposed to the client that if they were open to it, we'd like to discuss refreshing their logo. We were in need of the business, for one thing, but we also dreaded the idea of making permanent, authoritative signs with their sickly tree. They agreed to it, and we set about researching their operation from top to bottom. When asked how they would describe themselves, they used very inward-facing words about their culture, such as friendship and caring. It became apparent they had never even thought of themselves as an institution that needed the support of a community, benefactors, and the ever-changing student body. And so we added that to our list of ways to improve their identity.
Our presentation to the school's principal outlined various ways to refresh what they currently had. We suggested outward-facing language that would serve to engender trust and demonstrate leadership in their field. We showed how using one consistent typographic approach for the name made a big difference. And lastly we explained how we saw their tree logo as lacking life, and that by simply adding leaves, and cleaning up some of the drawing, we could effect a significant improvement. I think the harshest words we used were “anemic” and “amorphous.” The principal took this all in stride, and seemed open to our criticisms, and we left her to follow up with the school's board of directors.
In the meantime, we continued designing the signs we were under contract for, hoping that we'd soon be able to expand our scope of work. A couple weeks went by. Then the architect called. With hardly any explanation, the client had called him and demanded we be fired from the job. Fired! Because we had the audacity to critique their sad little tree. Eventually, since we were so far into it, we were kept on as the signage designers, but only with the understanding that the client had no interest in ever seeing us again. We completed that work, and now their nice building is clad with a big ugly sign.
Such extreme cases are rare. But what isn't is the pervasive mediocrity that comes out of relationships where the client isn't open to criticism, much less change. I hope to never again hear a designer say, "It's a miracle we were able to accomplish what we did," in defense of an ugly, meaningless bit of design. But sadly, I will.
Clients, just because we don't like your design doesn't mean we don't like you. In fact, it's because we like you so much that we need you to know you're serving sardines on cinnamon raisin bread. Don't shoot the messenger. Especially when he's bringing you—and your customers—a fresh, delicious, crusty baguette.