Staying Current > Lived Experience

Staying Current > Lived Experience

design graphic design clients generational rage respect

I'm a graphic designer, I have been for a little over seventeen years.

There's an axiom that most designers that I interact with tend to live by:

Free or full price

It basically means that, in order to value your own work, clients either need to pay your full price rate, or you do the job for free as a donation with specific expectations. Those expectations are usually some variation on:

  • designer has complete artistic control of the delivered design;
  • revisions and reviews will be entirely optional at designer's discretion; and/or
  • (in rare cases) there are no deadlines or due dates

The deal is that I, the designer, will do professional-level work for your project that you either can't afford, or as a donation to a cause, and in exchange, I, the designer, am allowed to fully stretch my creative wings, make something entirely without client oversight.

Design ≠ Art | Design = Communication

I can hear non-designers hackles starting to going up at this point:

"What's to stop you from designing something ugly or inscrutable?"

"What if the final designed piece doesn't fit the project?"

"Do you really think you know the project better than the client?"

Let me see if I can put those concerns at ease: design, first and foremost is about communication. Any designer that says it's about artistic expression, is an artist, not a designer. Design is communication. My job, as a designer, is to: research your project; listen to you and your leaderships' goals, challenges, market evaluations, and style; and to look at global, regional, and local trends to best position your designed material to COMMUNICATE the message you are trying to send. Regardless of the copy, the aesthetics of any piece of design should speak to the character, values, and goals of the project.

All that is to say, that when I take on a donated job, my goal is still to communicate the character, values, and goals of the project accurately and creatively, just without client interference muddying the water. In most cases, client interference lessens the efficacy of the final product. As a rule, clients are (ideally) good at whatever their job is: innovating, being a professional [insert profession], etc. They haven't been trained or worked in design for years, and as a result don't have the discipline to be able to decern personal preference from project ideals.

For example, you as the individual may not like the color blue, you may find it boring, mellow, and corporate. Let's say you hired me to do design work for your medical facility, that happens to be in a community with a high retired population. In this case, the argument against blue comes down to your personal preference over factual and statistical data about the profession, demographics, and design trends. What you may find as "boring" also communicates "reliable", "mellow" communicates "peaceful", and "corporate" communicates "professional". This is an obviously simple example, but one that has actually happened to me.

Human's don't easily separate themselves from the groups they are a part of, it's natural to see your work/charity/etc. as an extension of you, but (in most cases) we're not communicating your personality, we're communicating your business' personality. Yes, the design process is a back and forth, but when a client overrides a well executed design decision, rarely does it result in a better product.

It's from that perspective that free work offers the opportunity to design something that best shows how well you can do your job without client meddling. This, in turn, goes into your portfolio and future clients can see that, when left unbothered, you can do your job to the best of your ability and produce better work.

An Clusterfuck for Your Consideration

Recently I took on design responsibilities for a public social issue I care about. They didn't have much of a budget, and I wanted them to spend the money they had on printed materials (signs, mailers, etc.). So, to that end, I said I'd take on the project for free, with the stipulation that I'd have full artist control. My point of contact at the organization was ecstatic. They knew that aesthetics were important, but it wasn't in their skill set and someone managing the website, print design, identity, and all the other visual media was a huge load off their very busy schedule.

I built a new website, created a visual identity, and laid out a mailer But, this is where things went awry.

My point of contact was great to work with. They were please with my work, I'd captured the tone of the messaging, I'd handled many of the frustrations that had been bogging them down, and we worked together smoothly.

Between the website build and mailer layout, a retired, political campaign manager decided they wanted to help this group as well. I'd actually run across this person previously on a local political campaign I was doing design work for. In that campaign, they had decided that liked the candidate and were going to "get them elected" since the candidate's team was young and inexperienced. Regardless of the fact that the candidate was doing well already and the retired political manager had been retired for over ten years, the candidate figured that not listening to someone with this much experience would be foolhardy.

Without going into too much detail, the candidate and I setup a photo shoot for marketing materials with a professional photographer who also wanted to donate their time. The retired political manager said they'd come and help. Great! More people helping get the candidate elected: wonderful. In the span of an hour and a half, the retired political manager managed to offend all of the top donors that had shown up, hijacked the shoot from the photographer so that the retired political manager's spouse could start taking the photos, and disenfranchise and harassed the candidate's most excited supporters, some of whom were underaged. The candidate and I then spent several days doing damage control and apologizing for this person's behavior. We also only got about half as many photos as hoped for, due to the photographer being sidelined halfway through, and the retired political manager's husband's photos were unusable due to quality issues.

Because of that, I was wary when the point of contact mentioned that the retired political manager had requested to do a review session of the mailer design. The details don't really matter, but in the end, the design was overhauled to have zero visual hierarchy, zero whitespace, and the established identity completely removed. It became clear that fighting for the design was going to be much more effort and alienating than just going along with the requested changes. Even so, I had to explain that "no, you cannot use photos of children without written permission from the parent and a release of photo rights from the photographer"; as well as that the USPS has very specific guidelines for mailers, that they update frequently, and just because you did something in the early-90s doesn't mean we can do it today.

In the end, I just requested my name be removed from the design.

Your Lived Experience Is Only Valid Though a Current Lens

The whole point of sharing all that above was to say: staying current is more important than lived experience.

I'm 38-years-old, most designers at my age are moving from design positions to creative director positions or some other managerial position. There's a reason the actual design work is done by younger people: they know what's currently going on in the world.

As we get older, more and more our personal lives take over our interest; we become more and more navelgaze-y. It starts with music and movies, we sort of pause after our early-20s, and unless we make a concerted effort, we're rooted to that time in terms of style, aesthetic, vibe, etc.

Time and time again, I have interactions with Baby Boomers who pull some variation of "once you've lived as long as I have you'll [insert bullshit opinion here]". I've now reached that weird middle-aged space where I can still sort of see what being relevant looked like, but also know that for the first few years of my life, my parents had NO idea what they were doing. I was five-years-old when my dad was my age, and that's terrifying to think about. No one knows what they're doing, we're simply taking in what we can and making a decision. And just because you lived through some shit, doesn't mean you know more.

That retired political manager may have had the inside track in the early-90s getting state politicians elected, but the game has changed since then, and they haven't kept up. Their suggestions are outdated and laughable, but ultimately, we've structured our society to value age rather than wisdom. Age says: "listen to me, I've been around"; wisdom says: "when I was your age, this is how I handled the problems I faced, but I'm seeing that the landscape is different, how can I help?" It's the difference because being an asset and being a liability.

Every generation complains about the previous ones, so I know I'm not treading new ground here, but I think there's something universal about being honest with yourself and recognizing that you're not aware of current culture. Or, even better, staying connected, and being relevant. For example, there's this great interview from 2019 where Desus and Mero interview Bernie Sanders...you know, let me just link the video:

What you can see is that Bernie Sanders is basically able to talk to any aged person because he's still listening, learning, and interacting with culture. It's not less old people we need, it's less unaware people.

Wrapping It Up

Listen, I know this is a whiney post. I needed to get it off my chest, and this seemed like the least intrusive place to dump it, I mean blogs by their nature are masturbatorial anyway. So, that's why it's here.

Whether I like it or not, my demons still have me battling to live up to some rendition of the Golden Rule, so I don't really like shitting on people or generations of people, even if they deserve it. I'm just so frustrated by people who offend or even inconvenience someone out of selfishness, ego, and/or entitlement.

[insert oblivious self reflection on being a white man]

They say the first step to recovery is identifying that you have a problem, and I assume the first step in identifying that you have a problem is being annoyed when other do a thing you hate, the second being you recognizing it in yourself? Maybe.

Regardless, bottom line: hire quality people, then trust the people you hire. You hired them because you can't do what they do, to override them is foolishness. Also, don't be a dick. You can have that one for free.

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