August 26, 2018

Citizen Designer

What does it mean to be a designer in today's corporate-driven, over-branded global consumer culture? The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne’s Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility.

So, what is the responsibility of a designer when the design is impeccable but the client is tainted? Being accountable to some moral standard is the key. A designer must be professionally, culturally, and socially responsible for the impact his or her design has on the citizenry. Indeed, every good citizen must understand that his or her respective actions will have reactions. All individual acts, including the creation and manufacture of design for a client, exert impact on others. But Rand could not foresee Enron’s gross betrayal. And even if large corporations are sometimes suspect, why should he or any designer refuse to work for Enron or any similar establishment? A designer cannot afford to hire investigators to compile dossiers about whether a business is savory or not. Yet certain benchmarks must apply, such as knowing what, in fact, a company does and how it does it. And if a designer has any doubts, plenty of public records exist that provide for informed decisions. However, each designer must address this aspect of good citizenship as he or she sees fit.

Two years ago, when Milton Glaser was illustrating Dante’s Purgatory, he become interested in the “Road to Hell” and developed a little questionnaire to see where he stood in terms of his own willingness to lie. Beginning with fairly minor misdemeanors, the following twelve steps increase to some major indiscretions.

  1. Designing a package to look bigger on the shelf.
  2. Designing an ad for a slow, boring film to make it seem like a lighthearted comedy.
  3. Designing a crest for a new vineyard to suggest that it has been in business for a long time.
  4. Designing a jacket for a book whose sexual content you find personally repellent.
  5. Designing a medal using steel from the World Trade Center to be sold as a profit-making souvenir of September 11.
  6. Designing an advertising campaign for a company with a history of known discrimination in minority hiring.
  7. Designing a package for children’s snacks that you know are low in nutrition value and high in sugar content.
  8. Designing a line of T-shirts for a manufacturer that employs child labor.
  9. Designing a promotion for a diet product that you know doesn’t work.
  10. Designing an ad for a political candidate whose policies you believe would be harmful to the general public.
  11. Designing a brochure for an SUV that turned over frequently in emergency conditions and was known to have killed 150 people.
  12. Designing an ad for a product whose frequent use could result in the user’s death.

A dozen additional steps of varied consequence could be added, but Glaser’s list addresses a significant range of contentious issues. Designers are called upon to make routine decisions regarding scale, color, image, etc. — things that may seem insignificant but will inevitably affect behavior in some way. An elegant logo can legitimize the illegitimate; a beautiful package can spike up the sales of an inferior product; an appealing trade character can convince kids that something dangerous is essential. The graphic designer is as accountable as the marketing and publicity departments for the propagation of a message or idea.

Talented designers are predisposed to create good-looking work. We are taught to marry type and image into pleasing and effective compositions that attract the eye and excite the senses. Do this well, we’re told, and good jobs are plentiful; do it poorly and we’ll produce junk mail for the rest of our lives. However, to be what in this book we call a “citizen designer” requires more than talent. As Glaser notes, the key is to ask questions, for the answers will result in responsible decisions. Without responsibility, talent is too easily wasted on waste.

This book examines and critiques through essays and interviews three areas in which designers practice and in which responsibility to oneself and society is essential. Sections on social responsibility, professional responsibility, and artistic responsibility offer insight into how our peers view their practices as dependent on moral codes. The final part, raves and rants, is a soapbox, pure and simple. Our goal in editing this book is not to offer dogmatic decrees or sanctimonious screeds but to address the concern that the design field, like society as a whole, is built on the foundation of... well, you fill in the blank.

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The second edition (June 2018) of Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, by Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne, is now available from Skyhorse Publishing, Amazon, and other good booksellers.

March 23, 2018

Pricing Creativity: A Guide to Profit Beyond the Billable Hour

Blair Enns, author of The Win Without Pitching Manifesto, has released a new title, Pricing Creativity. Blair was happy for me to share an excerpt.

Pricing Creativity, Rule #2: Offer Options

One of the biggest pricing mistakes that creative professionals make is to put a proposal in front of the client that contains only one option. In such a take-it-or-leave-it proposition there are only two outcomes, 50% of which are positive and 50% of which are negative.

If you resolve from hereon to always put three options in your proposals, you will increase the percentage of positive outcomes by half. That increase in odds, however, is not the main reason you should adhere to this rule of always offering options. There is something far more powerful going on here.

Presenting options changes the question you are asking the client from, “Does this proposal represent good value?” to a better question, “Which of these proposals is the best value?” The brain is wired to answer the second question. In fact, it is incapable of answering the first question without first asking the second. Allow me to demonstrate.

Look at the photo of the stick below and try to determine the length of the actual stick (not the photo). How long is it?

Wooden stick

I’ve put this image in front of hundreds of people and asked them to guess its length. I get responses from 2 inches to over 8 feet, but most people get the point of the exercise and answer, “It’s impossible to tell.” It’s impossible to discern the length of the stick because there is no context.

This exercise reveals a hidden-in-plain-sight truth: Human beings cannot subjectively perceive absolute values. You can only know the length of anything objectively by measuring it against something for which you do know the length, like a ruler or a running shoe or Saturn. To know its value you must make a comparison; there is no other way to know it.

This truth is so universal that it applies to all values, including weight, size, luminescence (brightness), temperature, and more. By removing the comparisons I can leave you uncertain about something’s value. By controlling the comparisons I can make you think light is heavy, black is white, and expensive is cheap.

Pricing Creativity, Blair Enns

Pricing Creativity is available to buy from Win Without Pitching. Blair’s spent a career coaching hundreds of creative firms on how they can improve their finances. He’s finally put that coaching into a book. And it’s great. Even if you’ve been setting your prices for a decade, there are different ways of doing things, and Blair covers a lot of ground here.

You can listen to Blair talk about the writing process and the book content on the 2Bob podcast with David C. Baker. His earlier book, The Win Without Pitching Manifesto, was featured previously. Also worth a read.

May 10, 2017

A few thoughts on passive income

My answers to a few questions about Amazon Associates and passive income, asked by Tom May for a piece on the Shopify blog.

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April 27, 2017

Being an independent designer

It was in 2004 when I first gave serious thought to self-employment. I was part of a team in a small cancer charity, and one day after work I picked up a hefty ankle injury playing football. Unable to walk for a couple of weeks meant some time away from the office, but it was still easy to work remotely. When I was back in the office, I couldn’t shake the thought of starting a business from home, and within the year I’d given my notice.

My formal education really hadn’t prepared me for design self-employment. And judging by the students I regularly talk to, that’s common among designers of a similar level. So if you’re thinking of making the same move, here are a few of the pros and cons from my time as an independent designer.

Mossant hat posterBy Leonetto Cappiello, for Mossant, 1938

You get to wear a lot of different hats

Designer, salesperson, marketer, promoter, project manager, accountant, IT support, developer, cleaner — just a few of the hats you’ll wear. So while you might spend a lot of time working from desks, it’s hardly dull.

Sometimes you just want to wear your favourite hat

At some point you’ll want to be a designer when you need to be a negotiator, or you’ll want to be using your sketchpad when you need to travel for a meeting. Don’t ignore the other hats, no matter how strange the fit might initially seem.

Doing the job you love

How many of your friends and family love their jobs? How many of them work solely to pay bills or support their families? I know how fortunate that makes me.

Love gets tested

A client might disappear without making final payment. A mistake from someone you bring on board to help will mean taking the blame yourself. Some potential clients think that because you love your job, you’ll happily work for free. It’s not all roses.

You decide your rates

If you charge what your previous employer might’ve charged others for your time, and you take your boss out of the equation, straight away you earn more money. There aren’t any predetermined income brackets that someone puts you in, no annual pay reviews where you try to convince your superiors that you’re worth more — in self-employment, you determine your worth. That was part of the incentive for me, but also led to one of the biggest challenges...

No-one tells you what to charge

People can give you some indication of what figure to show on your project quotes, but no-one knows your education and work history like you do. No-one knows the level of effort and attention to detail you put into every project. No-one knows that you sometimes see anchor points when you close your eyes. This is your call, and you’ll always question what you decide, whether you win the project or not.

You set your hours

No nine to five, Monday to Friday. No generating someone else’s profits. If I need to go somewhere one afternoon, or if I just fancy a walk along the coast, I don’t need permission. Routine’s still important, setting the times when clients can reach you, for example, but in general, you have a lot more flexibility with your time.

Some people think you’re always on call

I’ve worked with clients in almost every time zone, more than 30 countries, and in the early days, taking full responsibility for every project detail was completely new, so I wasn’t careful enough about setting boundaries. Being woken by a client calling in the middle of the night is hardly ideal. That’s a small thing, clarifying those expectations. Still important, though.

You set the rules

And you have a huge advantage over bigger businesses. No need for meeting after meeting before a marketing campaign or before changing the focus of what you do. Go ahead. You’re in charge. At the beginning I solely wanted to work with local clients — meeting face-to-face so I could build a stronger relationship. So I got my stationery printed at a local shop, dusted off my portfolio, dressed the part and hit the streets. Was I successful? Not really, but I was trying. I was putting myself in front of potential clients, only needing a few days of preparation.

No one explains what to do

In hindsight, I was at my most naïve when first starting out. My business name was the cringeworthy New Dawn Graphics, with a website made to appear like I was a team of designers rather than just me. I became increasingly uncomfortable with the generic name until finally branding myself under my personal name. I was much happier, but branding definitely wasn’t the end of the mistakes I’d make.

If you want a holiday, take a holiday

Friends going on a last-minute trip? Festival tickets suddenly become available? More stressed than normal lately? There’s no longer the need to juggle your time off around your colleagues’ prebooked holidays. Your only concern is with your clients. Treat them well. Then treat yourself. There’s no boss to give you a Christmas bonus or tell you to have the rest of the day off. That’s on you. Don’t let it slip.

Forget paid holidays

No paid sick days or maternity/paternity leave, either.

Your clients come from all walks of life, all around the world

Clients can just as easily be halfway around the world as they can the other side of town. What I still find strange is that my clients are mostly overseas, and it’s rare when I have the pleasure of meeting in person. But the best part of working with different people is how the nature of their businesses changes with almost every project. With one I’ll need to learn about surfing, with another about tequila, another about fashion, medical advances, digital music... The things you’re paid to study are limited only by the clients you choose to work with.

You probably can’t meet every client in person

You can’t beat meeting face-to-face for building a relationship, so I’m unlikely to create the strongest of bonds through phone and video calls. That doesn’t mean I can’t surpass expectations. It’s just that I won’t always be in the room to see any delight. There’s a positive in there, though — you save a ton of time that would’ve been spent traveling to and from meetings.

The 1-minute commute

Would anyone actually miss rush hour? You can spend that time and fuel elsewhere.

The inability to leave your work “at the office”

When your job’s where you live, it’s easy to work longer hours, easy to say “just one more email” or “one more design change.” But step back. Look around. The people we so easily take for granted won’t be here forever.

Change your scenery

The sun’s shining, not a cloud in the sky, you’ve spent the past week working indoors. Grab the laptop and head to the park, beach, countryside...

In fact, leave it at home. Take the afternoon off. You can catch up later.

April 3, 2017

What Clients Think 2017

In association with the DBA, Up to the Light conducted telephone interviews with 455 design clients to produce the What Clients Think 2017 report.

Interesting read. Here are some things that stood out.

44% of clients believe that their design agency should ask more questions.

“Asking questions is a good habit. Agencies frequently ask lots of questions at the beginning of a relationship but this is sometimes not sustained. Continued questions show interest and enthusiasm. The knowledge gained can also stimulate proactive ideas and effective client development.”

Most clients look at portfolio case studies seeking the answers to strategic questions, rather than wanting a general impression of agency flair and creativity. 57% of clients think that case studies on agency websites lack business context, and 64% want case studies to be more helpful.

Clients field an average of 17 new business approaches every day from agencies of different design disciplines, an increase on last year. 81% of clients like to “discover” a new agency rather than feel sold to, so there needs to be a shift away from credentials-based selling toward knowledge sharing.

Many clients expressed cynicism about “full service” agencies and would prefer honesty about core competencies. Some clients also thought the word “storytelling” was trite, mostly through overuse.

96% of clients don’t follow any design agency on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, but 97% of clients use LinkedIn.

70% of clients expect designers to pitch for free. (I’ll just put this here: why are designers still expected to work for free?)

Agencies that haven’t met the client face-to-face before a pitch presentation only have an 8% chance of winning the business.

On the plus side, one of the biggest client concerns was the need to stand out:

“A consequence of increased competition, ‘noisy’ markets and less attentive customers is that it becomes more challenging for brands to stand out. As ever, agency ‘creativity’ has an important role to play.”

The report’s free to download from Up to the Light.

Via DesignWeek.

March 2, 2017

Paula Scher on pro bono

“That’s why pro bono work is great. You choose to do it, and if you’re choosing to do it to grow your own work, your deal is essentially that you’re not going to collaborate. You’re going to do the job the way you think the job is gonna be done.”

Paula ScherPaula Scher, photo by John Madere

I agree. Pro bono’s a swap. You give up your fee, and the client gives up the ability to ask for changes. It’s good for both sides. The client gets free use of work that you want in your portfolio — work that persuades others to pay you.

Paula Scher on why and when it’s worth working for free.

Here’s a good example of when pro bono design pays off (in the archives).

And The Great Discontent interview with Paula Scher is an interesting read.

January 30, 2017

Bowie on design ideas

“If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you feel that your feet aren’t quite touching the bottom you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.” — David Bowie

Not specifically about design, but the similarity’s there.

Via Eric.

On a tangent, the Royal Mail is releasing David Bowie stamps showing vinyl album covers as a tribute to the late artist.

December 9, 2016

The five constraints

In one of his talks, Blair Enns of Win Without Pitching focuses on five business constraints, and bets that those who apply them are much more likely to succeed.

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October 5, 2016

Advice for design students

There are almost 1,000 pages tucked away on this site — various blog posts published over the years. Here are a few aimed at helping graphic design students.

On working with clients

On getting hired

On learning

On design self-employment

There’s also a resources page on the Work for Money, Design for Love website. It’s mostly for designers thinking of self-employment.

July 22, 2016

Ogilvy on meeting clients and prospects

In 1962, Time magazine called David Ogilvy (1911-1999) “the most sought-after wizard in today's advertising industry.”

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January 25, 2016

On late client payments, sticking to the brief, and the value of design

Answers to a few questions from one of my recent Officehours chats.

Officehours logo

How do you handle late client payments?

It’s rare when I’m paid late because I keep the files I create (and their usage rights) until after final payment. That wasn’t always how I worked, though. Not long after I started in business an overseas client refused to pay a final invoice after I sent the design files and despite my client being happy with the work.

Months had passed when a print company involved with the project asked if I was having problems getting paid. When I said yes I was referred to a debt collection agency — the first and only time during my 11 years in business when debt collectors have been involved. A year later, my client unexpectedly got in touch to settle the bill, and afterward I then paid 30 percent of the invoice to the collection agency. Not an ideal situation, but it taught me not to send final files until after payment.

There was no animosity, but I felt uneasy when the collection agency got involved. I wondered what kind of communication was taking place, so if you’re ever dealing with debt collectors ask about their methods, if only for peace of mind.

How do you prevent a client from moving away from the brief?

Now and again during projects I’ll be asked to do work that’s outside the original agreement. If it’s a small job that won’t take too long I’ll say something like, “I’ll get this done for you but it wasn’t in the original scope, so I’ll need to charge for any further requests.” That way the client’s happy, and I either get paid for other add-ons, or the client then sticks to the original brief.

How do you communicate the value of design with non-design savvy clients?

The rates I set mean that the people I work with already place significant value on design. If a client’s happy to pay what I charge, they tend to understand the positive impact that good design will have on their business. You’re much more likely to struggle with this if you’re underselling yourself.

As Tara Gentile points out, “Pricing is one indication of quality. Your customers will use your prices to understand ‘how good’ what you offer is. If your price means your service appears lacking in quality, you won’t get the kind of customers you want — regardless of how ‘affordable’ your work is.”

Good design, bad design

Catch me on Officehours if you think I can help with something and you fancy a 10 minute chat. More pricing resources here.

July 8, 2015

On getting paid

It’s professional to clarify terms before a client makes an initial payment, and clients want to work with professionals.

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September 10, 2014

Antisocial media marketing

My Logo Design Love Facebook page has been "liked" more than 300,000 times, yet even the most popular newsfeed update (the photo album that's screen-grabbed below) isn't shown to everyone who has chosen to see what I share.

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July 6, 2014

Mike Dempsey on “the graphic designer and ethics”

“If you are a designer, ask yourself: am I colluding with a food or drinks manufacturer in minimising the bad points of a product through a designed subterfuge to make the product look enticing to children?”

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