Chicken Soup for the Young Designer.


I recently was asked to give advice to a young designer out of New York who is struggling with people understanding what he does and the value that it adds. He wrote to me after our introduction via email and mentioned some of his struggles with people ‘getting’ design and wondered if there was a secret to dealing with difficult clients. Below is my response…


I think we have a lot in common and if a designer tells you they don’t have to deal with people ‘not getting it’ they are damned liars.

I’ve had struggle after struggle and the only thing I can tell you in short at this point in my career about “creative happiness” is to keep that stuff for yourself. Seriously. True creative freedom is not really part of the game. Even the greats are expert collaborators and manipulators…nothing else. Learning to persuade and communicate in a language that each client understands so that you can get them to embrace your idea or even better, think it was their’s…is key. Ensure that you are doing what you love and find to be a creative release. Use your free time to do what you want to do…and thanks to the Interwebs you can publicize the hell out of it and hope people start to reach out to you to do it for money. There are a lot of sites available to monetize your creativity, but when you are a designer it’s different. You are being paid to solve a problem and anytime someone is paying the bills…they have a say, period.

People do not ‘get’ Design. It’s not going to get better. Technology has made things so easy, that they are convinced in masses that Photoshop is the only thing separating them from us. How many times have you heard, “my neice has Photoshop and she’s a pretty good designer”? The sort of conversations I’ve overhead and had at AIGA leadership retreats and the way the world talks about Design are two different things. *(highly recommend and by the way)

Now that we’ve had our pity party, just realize that one of life’s biggest struggles (ironically smack dab in the middle of the ‘communication’ era) is working with teams and collaborating under a singular idea for results. Learn to track the success of your work and how to illustrate the design choices go beyond aesthetics. Ultimately, you are a problem solver and your language is visual communication at it’s roots.

This is why great leaders are great leaders. It takes patience beyond your wildest dreams, vision, and last but not least…empathy to coordinate success and deliver.

Everyone wants their ideas heard and they all want to hang their shit on the refrigerator for the proverbial mommy to pat them on their heads. It’s a fight to protect egos out there for sure. So, full circle…this is why you have to be a champion of collaboration and communication. 

Don’t just lose your mind and all focus because a wrench got thrown into your plans. Learn to talk through WHY it doesn’t work and learn to use your skills to MAKE it work. That is something you will never be congratulated for, but you can lie down at night knowing that you made the freaking logo bigger, but still ‘made it work’. Lastly, just write it off. This is part of the game. Sometimes, you just can’t save it. You do the best you can to salvage, knowing it could have been more…but let’s face it…you couldn’t sell it. That’s okay. There will be another time and if you’re lucky enough you don’t have to work with the person who doomed it again.

Learn to look at things positively…this was and still is TOUGH for me, but I can assure you it’s been detrimental to my success. If you feel yourself slipping into WTF land during an interaction with a client learn to keep the smiley face on and take evasive action. Use your wits to counter a client or supervisor when they request things you feel are strategically a mistake where design is concerned. When you use your language be sure to talk about the impact of the design and the functions of the choices you’ve made and how they are going to solve the underlying problem that was given to you. That is a big one. Don’t waste time on conversation about aesthetics without factual backing or you will get no where.

Designers don’t often get the glory nor does Design, but we don’t work in a bubble. Big problems don’t revolve around design. They require strategy, marketing, production and fulfillment among other things, but I personally believe Designers can bring enormous value in today’s market due to the nature of commerce today. Barrier to entry is lower, rapid prototyping is faster, cheaper and easier and competition is at an all time high. 

If you compete…you need design / branding. I’ve always said this. If you have created a business that offers something NO ONE else in the world can offer….then you’re probably safe. The truth is there are many, many products available and the competitive edges are tiny or worse non existent. Creating brand recognition and appealing to the senses through design that resonates with the audience is secret sauce.

Hope all or some of this helps you find insight and inspiration to do big things!


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