The Ethics of being a Designer

A few years ago I had the opportunity to become a remote design director for a team in Eastern Europe. Of course I snatched that gig up– It’s a great learning experience I said!– but the experience that ensued was a lot more than I had bargained for. The lessons, practices, and situations I absorbed in those loaded 6 months have forever equipped me with all I need to know in how not to design for clients. Literally. 

No like literally. Not literally and by literally I mean figuratively, literally-literally. 

Through those rough and tumble moments, I’ve developed a pretty solid standard of ethics I follow when dealing with clients. It’s nowhere near exhaustive, my clients aren’t exhaustive! Each time I work with someone I learn something new, grow different aspects, and because I’m experiencing a whole new set of personality, am reacting to new (and completely exciting!) things with each interaction. To not adapt to each client, I don’t know– I don’t see how that would work for you.

1. Design is the visual organization of communication.
It is visual treatments, typography choices, colors, styles, all of it lends to what’s being communicated. If you can’t figure that out, you have to go back to square one– or even see if this is for you. It’s that simple.  

You must have the ability to communicate clearly, concisely and honestly with the people you’re working with, and for. On a daily basis, No matter what kind of mood you’re in. Designing for clients is really challenging. It’s hardly anyones favorite aspect of the job, but it’s never going away. Learning to work with the client and stop fighting them is the greatest way I’ve found to turn that challenging negative into a mutually beneficial positive. 

You also must possess the ever elusive ability to listen. Not just hear, and think you know, actually listen. While there’s a lot of intellectual stuff that plays into design, there’s also a lot of empathetic elements as well. Making the attempt to understand where the client is coming from, rather than just trashing bad taste or ignorant ideas, try and understand that the client doesn’t know– and show them! Take the time to embrace the client and enlighten them with more options. Create the path that you want them to follow, because you are the one “in the know”. Simply talking with an honest and open mind will help the process, and make you seem like you know what you’re talking about– because if you’re at this point in the game, you totally should.

2. You cannot force anyone into an idea, no matter how much you talk it up, or how fast you fire words at people. Oh no you cannot.

Or, you COULD- but you will find yourself fighting uphill the entire time. And seeing the client hire someone else to redesign whatever it is you did for them as soon as you’ve finished. 

If it wasn’t in the context of designer/client, we’d all see this dynamic for what it really is– bullying! So the client doesn’t like it, the client doesn’t like it- whatever. Maybe they’re reacting to something you can’t see, maybe your personal taste is getting in the way (I know I’m definitely guilty of this one), but getting frustrating and hung up on it is one surefire way to kill whatever progress you were nurturing. Allowing this to be a no-judgement process will absolutely keep the client feeling more comfortable, more creative and more receptive! So while you’re intention is to make the client pick the cool idea, what you’re doing is diminishing that client’s intention on working with you. Leave it alone, let it be and move on. Tell the client it’s all a process and that you’re working towards a goal, not demanding perfection. Leave it on the table, and work on something new. Many times I’ve actually had clients want to come back to something they initially hated, but had I harped and demanded they see the greatness, they probably wouldn’t ever have done that. 

Let people react honestly to your work. You’re creating something to solve a problem, not to solely boost your ego. 

3. People can actually tell when they’re being sold to, avoided, and taken for a ride. 

This I’ve unfortunately had to witness all too often. It’s never fun (or a good idea, really) to work with someone who challenges your boundaries and ethics. I’m fortunate to hardly have experience in it, but when I came up against it, I can tell you I wasn’t quiet. People, regardless of where they live, where they’re from, what religion they are, what color their skin is, what sex organs they have, and who they sleep with (and yes, all of these things were challenged through the people I worked with) deserve respect and the decency of honest and timely correspondence. It’s not always the case (as I now know. Even all the way up to the ripe futuristic time of 2012), but I refuse to treat anyone differently based on anything besides who they are. If you’re a bad person, you’re a bad person. But that’s not stemming directly from the fact that you’re an American, black, white, homosexual, woman, or anyone who doesn’t love Jesus. 

When you run a business dependent on the selling of goods and services to others, you want to treat those others with respect. If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a million times, but it bares repeating. Especially when I’ve seen it done more to the contrary. I still have old clients emailing me on all channels they can find me to complain about the LACK of every single thing you would think a company would offer. It’s disheartening, and like those commercials about the children that live in a shoebox, I feel hopeless to really help the situation. I’m not going to outright steal clients, that’s just bad business.

4. When you claim to be an expert, you have to at least be knowledgable in the area you’re claiming to be an expert in. 

You would think I wouldn’t even have to say anything about this. I assume there was a huge resounding DUH as you finished that sentence, but I do have to say something about this. I came into this field as someone who had already been working as a designer for 3 years before I had even gone to art school. I was comfortable in photoshop for sure, but ignorant to the rules and standards of the industry of design. If you haven’t heard, design school was so rigorous that I went grey at 22, no longer need more than 5 hours of sleep to feel “well rested”, and can sit at long hours at the computer without blinking because “I just have to get one more done”. It changed how I approached everything. The learning curves I was slung through challenged me at anything and everything I understood as “design”. Of course I’m still growing, and I look at my old design work and sigh lovingly like you would at a children’s drawing.

The problem with self taught designers (and before I finish, there are exceptions to every rule) is that they approach the problem on a superficial level. It’s all visual, but from someone who was self taught then pushed through to academia, design is the iceberg of the visual arts. 10% is visual, 90% is conceptual. The conceptual structure that design is found upon separates those who are sufficed with a texture and a trend, and those who need more. I bet you can guess which group I’m in! 

I’ve given in to clients just wanting what they wanted, but I’ll never show those logos to people. The designs I’m most proud of are the ones that visually speak to the personality or emotions that drove the brand. The ones where the client couldn’t help but scream, “THAT IS SO ME!” That’s when I know I’ve succeeded. Not when I made the coolest treatment, or the sweetest watercolor watermark, but the ones where I was able to define someone’s approach to their work, through my own. I didn’t get that from learning photoshop. I got that from busting my ass over conceptual pairing of image and text. I’ll never forget it. 

Being a designer, at least with any staying power, I believe you need to be a consistently driving refining force. The things you’ve created last year are archaic, and the things you create today are old news. The way I’ve always looked at things is I am only as great as the last thing I made. It’s why I always make. Even with 10 clients at once, I’m still going to create as many variations with one idea as I can. I’m going to push that idea all the way until it’s no longer that same idea. And then I’m going to keep going. WIth every. single. client. And every single idea. I worked with designers that would make one idea. Not one idea with 25 variations. One. And then they would tell the client that this was “it” because it was so great. I couldn’t believe it! How do YOU even know that it’s the one? All you’ve made is just one! We didn’t see eye to eye (no kidding), and I’m sure he’s still selling that one idea, but for me, more ideas will always give you such a wealth to play with. A wealth of everything! Plus, and I can’t believe I even have to mention this, but hey, If you flesh out an idea to its highest point, even if this client doesn’t like it, you’ve explored such a huge vein of things for future unknown clients. Work is never wasted even if it’s not used right away. Create. Learn. Explore. You are only holding yourself back by not investing in growing your own abilities.

And I do mean in more than just software knowledge or coding languages. 

The skill sets that benefit designers are infinite. Make that infinitely infinite. Even if, or possibly especially when, you pick up interests outside of the creative world, it will inevitably trickle into your work. 

Maintaining a constant stream of interests/hobbies will also help keep you efficient and productive at work. If you’re already moving, you’re going to stay moving. Newton’s first law of motion– and just like that, you’re learning new things. 

5. The saying “You’re only as strong as your weakest link” is undeniably true.

Having been independent for the majority of my existence, this sentence never really rang with me until recently. Until I was face deep in client work, and instead of having other people to delegate to, I had people begging me to help them. Not the way a life of the design director is supposed to go. The problem with this scenario was I was the only one well equipped enough to handle the workload in front of me. When the time came for me to lean on some other members in my team, I wasn’t able to receive the same assistance. It just wasn’t there. You can’t run a design team where there’s one strong individual, 2 moderately competent individuals, and a handful of children watching youtube videos. That’s not a design team, I think that’s the standard tax code for a family day care, but I’m no accountant.  

6. There is such a thing as accountability, especially when it comes to people’s livelihoods. 

I run a small business that is my life. If I don’t get paying clients, then my world becomes a sad and dangerous place. But that’s why I work hard to treat my clients well, and happy clients means happy bank account time. This isn’t rocket science– but not every company recognizes it. 

When you lie to clients, either to get them to sign up for your services, or to shirk responsibilities, you may not think anything of it. Maybe it’s a tiny lie, maybe you think they’ll never find out, but that’s not behavior I’d touch with a ten foot pole. It may not make a difference in regards to lying to clients, and some people think lying is a necessity, but I’ll never do it. I’d rather tell someone bad news and upset them with my blunt honesty than hide behind a veil of false kindness. It’s not really being kind if you’re just prolonging the inevitable.  

When you work with small businesses, you need to be aware and fully responsible of your role in the success or failure of that small business. I mean okay, if the owner’s hooked on meth, you can’t really be blamed if that business burns to the ground. But if you’re the web designer on a business owner’s site and blog, and that person depends on the site/blog for income, and your incompetence causes that site launch to get pushed from 3 months to 6 months to a year plus some? That’s a discrepancy with your team and their failure to do their job. Even after six months after my leaving, I am still getting correspondence from clients about how their work that I created has yet to be fully launched. It’s a sore spot in my mind for sure, and I’ve had to tell myself that people won’t judge me for the lack of completion, but don’t think it doesn’t weigh on me. When I work with a client, I invest in that client. I have to! I need to understand their passions, where they’re coming from, what drives them to do what they do, and what their aiming to achieve. I do this to help them solve whatever is lacking for their business, and at the end of it, their success is my success. To not treat that relationship with respect to the point where you directly influence whether a company stays in business or not, should directly influence whether you stay in business or not. 

Those who hire experts are looking to them for guidance and knowledge in a field that they are personally uncomfortable in. I know how challenging it is for most people to trust their beloved business baby to someone unknown! I imagine most people (because I am totally one of these people) can do things “themselves”, just to get it done. When people like THAT hire someone, they need that someone to know what the eff they are doing! To carry on otherwise is so unbelievably unethical, I didn’t even realized it happened until I ended up working with people who did it differently.  

The standards and expectations from professionals within the industry– ANY industry– needs to be maintained to hold up the integrity of that industry. 

There’s such a large gap between the mega-huge ad agencies and the crowdsourcing design farms that the general populace is introduced to. When I left that company and started researching who else there was for people to go to, the pickings were beyond slim, and therein lies the problem. People don’t know that this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be done. They have no idea. I’m here to help bridge that gap just a bit more every day. 

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