No, you make MY logo bigger.
March 13, 2008 10:39 PM   Subscribe

I am a graphic designer. I love graphic design. I hate hate hate clients. What can I do without wasting my entire education? (Much, much more inside.)

I know these "pick me a new job" questions get old but I really need some brains to pick. I've been thinking about writing this for a while now and never got stressed enough to actually post it, but a meeting yesterday just absolutely destroyed my will to keep doing this.

I think the quickest way to phrase this is: I love the design process when I am in control. The projects I release on my own generally turn out great (and I'm not the only one who thinks so) and I'm very proud of myself. When a client gets involved, the result is almost always tasteless (and I'm not the only one who thinks so!) and I am very, very unhappy.

Design is really a mix of a service and a product. I think that's what's getting me. If I provide a service, tell me exactly what to do and I'll do it. If I'm giving you a product, let me make it and you either buy it or you don't. Does that make sense?

Things I'm good at:
  • InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator. I'm really really good at these things in a technical sense. I'm quite a modest fellow, but I'm comfortable saying I know more about using these programs than most designers. The ones I know at least.
  • Organizing stuff. Information. Not so much physical things. Semantic HTML makes me smile so hard. The very few MySQL databases I've designed have been a lot of fun to work on/get headaches from.
  • Learning. I know a lot of crap. I know what I don't know, too, and if I need to know something, I can learn it fairly quickly. I like learning. I know a lot of people who don't.
  • Typography. I love type. Way more than pictures. I think I'm pretty good at using it effectively, too.
  • Copy editing. I'm not a great writer (as you may very well be thinking as you read this!), but I have a great eye for crap grammar (and god do I see a lot of it).
  • Details in general. I pay pretty crazy attention to detail. My girlfriend thinks I"m OCD. Whatever.
I think I'd enjoy teaching college. (Is this just way cliche?) I wouldn't teach the design concepts, but I could totally cover the software and hardware exacto knives and spray mount. At my school we called it Design Lab. I'm sure it's got different names at different schools.

A lot of classes I took in college were things I already knew, so I really liked the teachers who'd teach me something new. The ones who knew less than me are actually the ones who made me want to be a teacher. I have no idea how some of them even had jobs. I worked in my school's graphic design lab for a few semesters, and I ended up explaining a lot of what the kids there should have been learning in class.

I'm in my mid-twenties. Is that a problem? I have no desire to teach high school, even the fancy ones with graphic design classes, and I'd probably need some kind of teaching degree for that anyway. I've hung out/worked in print shops since I was kid (family and all that) so I do know my stuff (I fear this post comes off a bit cocky, but I usually do try to be modest).

Teaching isn't just something I jumped to because I don't like the actual job, either. A pretty good number of people in my family are teachers (it's kinda weird, now that I think about it) at various grade school levels. I've always kinda seen teaching as the only truly useful thing you can do with your life (because when you die, your work lives on, etc., I won't get philosophical on y'all). It's not something I take lightly is all I'm sayin'.

So that's my idea. Here's where you come in, dear MetaFilterites. What else might I be good at? I hate to leave my current job because they treat me like a king and they're truly wonderful people, but I cannot take the clients anymore. I just can't do it. If you'd seen some of the absolute crap I've been producing, you'd understand. I am by no means a design diva, and I understand that everybody's got different needs and priorities, but the work I'm putting out is making me feel rather ill.

Thank you for reading my plea. I apologize for its length. This is posted anonymously because I don't want my username associated with this whiny anti-work post in the Google searches of potential (or hell, current) employers. If you'd like to contact me directly, you can email
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (23 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Um, you're very young. Have you considered the idea that there may be other designers and creative people in general that would like to be uncompromising but can't be--that they have to take into account the client's needs, ideas, and opinions in order to make a living? That design is quite often a means to an end rather than an end in itself? That design is eventually very often a persuasive art, meant to sell things? If this makes you ill perhaps you should reconsider your choice of profession.

I'll offer a couple of suggestions but first I want to emphasize to you that you are not the first person to have these thoughts and you won't be the last. You are not a beautiful unique snowflake.

So, to be a little more constructive--some of the things you say about yourself indicate to me that you might enjoy working in the graphics department of a news publication. Your interest in type and language seems to indicate that you might be interested in making things like news events more clear to readers, whether on the Web or in print. Are you a Tufte fan? You might consider that certain people and firms have made careers of developing print identities for publications.

Another idea might be to look into book design. Are you familiar with Chip Kidd? This field can offer a degree of creative freedom you might not find elsewhere.

But both fields are extremely competitive, so don't think you can just waltz in. It's a good way to learn some humility and you might just be able to get on a track you like.
posted by lackutrol at 11:01 PM on March 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

You might look into becoming, not a teacher, but a trainer. Lots of people take courses on specific computer applications and other topics to get skills they need for their jobs. I had read a bunch of books on Adobe Illustrator and still didn't really understand Bezier curves until I took a one-day course on the program.
posted by kindall at 11:28 PM on March 13, 2008

Every designer would be much happier if it weren't for those darn clients messing everything up.

I don't think the answer is finding something new, but learning how to deal with clients better. You have an idea in mind, and its hard to let go of that in lieu of what the client wants. What you need to do is start viewing it from the clients eyes.

Most clients do not understand that design isn't about aesthetics, it's about communication. If you can show them a design or pitch them an idea, and explain WHY it works and what elements specifically work to achieve their goals.

Questionnaires, detailed notes, discussions and meetings regarding what message the client is trying to convey are all ways to not only get a clearer picture of what the client wants but also get the client themselves understanding what they want. Too often, the client doesn't even know, then the idea they have in there had is the exact opposite of what you just created.

You should also work towards honing your skills of taking what the client is asking for, and turning it into good design. Very often, and client asks for something that sounds just horrible. This goes back to understanding what the client wants and figuring out what the client themselves doesn't know. Maybe they don't really want a logo with comic sans, they just want a logo that says their business is "fun".

Another thing to consider is your place of employment. If they're not used to conveying their design expertise to the client, it might come as a shock that you're more than just a pixel pusher. This may be something you can change, or it might be the type of thing management doesn't want to change, in which case it could be time to look elsewhere.

It sounds like you're very technically savvy, but until you learn the communication part of design, you're not going to have much luck in this field. If you can't teach students how to deal with this aspect of being a designer, then you won't make much of a teacher.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:55 PM on March 13, 2008 [11 favorites]

It makes sense, but it's not realistic. That said, you may just be pining for an art director position. There's always going to be compromise and bad customers, though, even if they're internal to the company you're working for. For much, much more on the intersection of clients, money and design, look at the world of architecture. People like Santiago Calatrava and Rem Koolhaas are in-charge talents, but they're always having their stuff changed by committee or even rejected by the governments and residents of the areas in which their buildings are designed to be built. Imagine always running the risk of having one of your logos vetoed by a customer of your client, then rethink your approach (as talented as you might be). Gotta pay your dues one way or another.
posted by rhizome at 12:08 AM on March 14, 2008

Design is really a mix of a service and a product. I think that's what's getting me. If I provide a service, tell me exactly what to do and I'll do it. If I'm giving you a product, let me make it and you either buy it or you don't. Does that make sense?

It does. I hate it, too. However, most occupations that involve making money will make you beholden to customers. After all, that is where the money comes from. Even as a teacher, you'll be subject to evaluation forms from students and possibly complaints, and unless you're an acknowledged master of the field, you'll have to try to rectify criticism and honor requests.

What you're looking to be is an artist. I'd like to be one myself (of sorts), and am looking into it, but how to make a living from that is not entirely clear to me and is a whole different of thread.

Otherwise, you can find jobs that will limit your direct exposure to the customer like the ones lacturol mentioned, but it is highly unlikely that you'll ever have a salaried job in which you can say, "Hey. This how I've made it, and that's how it is. If you don't like it, too bad."
posted by ignignokt at 12:19 AM on March 14, 2008

I'm not a designer by title, but I am in the technical field, so I do understand your frustration (with clients).

I agree with what some of the others are saying, that the best option would be to work your way out of "being employed" into some form of self-employment like being an artist. (what medium, analog or digital, you choose to focus in, is your choice). Thats going to give yo more freedom to work within your own boundaries. Of course this process (working towards being self employed) may take a while (till your 30's).. but everything I've heard (and believe) its totally worth it. (I'm still working on it, and I'm about to turn 35)

Considering the skills you listed as strong points, here are some of my ideas of things you might look into doing:

--freelance blog layout designer. (there was a story a while back about a high school girl designing Myspace layouts and making some serious killer cash) Surely if you are that good, you could do custom layout designs for Drupal or other CMS's ?

--check the websites for local businesses, find the ones whose web-designs suck, and send them some free layout mockup/suggestions and your business card ?

Just throwing out ideas.. hopefully even if they suck, they might spark other ideas. ;)
posted by jmnugent at 12:34 AM on March 14, 2008

I'm a graphic designer for a newspaper advertising department. So I have a pretty good idea of where you're coming from.

For me, the position works quite well. I've just never been the "le artiste" type, but I'm good with layout and I enjoy solving problems. We have some that have evolved into the job over many years with the company, and we also have some hotshots (mostly younger) that can knock out some fantastic stuff when given the chance. This last group is the type that is more likely to bolt for another job with more creative freedom. We don't get much of a chance to do the type of design that is usually considered "great." This has caused many a designer to become disenchanted with the position.

Newspaper ads cost a fair chunk of change, but they also have local appeal. Joe's Knick-Knack Shop isn't going to run an ad in USA Today or Time Magazine - they're going to use the local paper if they're going to advertise. The cost, though, presents some challenges. What it often means is that the advertiser will buy the smallest ad they can, and absolutely jam it full. If they buy a small color ad, this is even more interesting because of the challenges of web press registration and tremendous dot gain. It's not unusual to get a 2x2 ad with 75 words of type, oh, and get the logo in there. And make it bigger. Many clients, when faced with the reality of what the ads cost, do not want to use whitespace and aren't worried about the flow of their ad. They want all of their inventory in there, and their address, phone number, etc. And starbursts. Lots of starbursts.

The thing is, though, is that they are paying the bills. If they don't cut the check, we don't have the job. You can show them an ADDY-winning spec, but if they won't pay for it, what good does that do? I've had some fantastic spec ads that I've built chopped to bits, and I take a couple of seconds to sigh, then I get over it. It doesn't matter how pretty it is if you're not getting any money for it. You're trying to differentiate between a product and a service, which is one way of looking at it. The problem is that the customer makes that call of what they're buying. If you try to make that call for them, you're not going to have customers for long. In graphic design, the customer is almost always, as far as they are concerned, buying services and the artist is trying to push a product. That leads to the considerable butting of heads that is so common in this industry.

What you have to do is learn how to survive with this. Always keep your eye open for a better opportunity, but realize that it may take some time. But if you have clients, you'll always be dealing with these situations. Everyone I've ever done work for has wanted to put their own input on the work, sometimes 15 revisions worth. Anytime someone has asked me about getting into the industry, I've told them that you will often be working from someone else's expectations and vision, which will rarely if ever jibe with your own. Now, if you teach, you might just have some fun teaching students and you might turn out some good designers. But you will also be doing far less design work. Before you think about going down that path, you have to think if that compromise is right for you.

(Do you have the cash to start your own company? If you know how to promote yourself, there's a lot of money to be made selling t-shirts and stickers, among other things. Now that's selling product.)
posted by azpenguin at 1:22 AM on March 14, 2008 [3 favorites]

You need to learn the Sex & Cash Theory.

Or you need to practice your people skills so you can sell people your idea.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:18 AM on March 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm sympathetic because you sound exactly like me 10 years ago, though I worked in a different craft. I thought I was hot shit because I had talent and picked up technical skills easily. My clients and employer seemed more like obstacles than raisons d'etre. The crappiness of what I had to do kept me up at night.

With a few more years behind me, I can see that talent and technical skills are only a small part of the package, a seed rather than a flower. If you start teaching people now, before you learn to cope with the realities of the market, you'll only turn out more frustrated artistes that don't know how to cope with the market either. Such a path might save you from your current frustration, but it is fundamentally escapist and, on some level, may make you feel like a refugee.

I know it's tempting to look for a quick fix, but this sounds to me like the inescapable anxious energy of youth. Changes that will help you feel better may come slowly, and not require that you dramatically reinvent yourself. You'll probably never find an endless stream of perfect clients, but you can make the best of the ones you have and thus attract better ones.
posted by jon1270 at 3:26 AM on March 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

How about exploring becoming a concept artist in your off time? You still have to deal with clients, but you're allowed to have more control over what you're doing. I had an artist friend who could paint like Dali, and to earn money, he did 3-D renditions of things like beer pull handles for companies that wanted a series of concepts before they made the actual product.

So in effect, you're putting yourself out there, but for money. In the meantime, you still get to have a salary while you're exploring things.

I understand where you're coming from. I've had my designs, my writing, my ideas, changed beyond recognition by people who hired me for my abilities and then turned what I did into a steaming pile of shit. I've learned to shrug it off because I'm getting paid as a work-for-hire, not to do major installations at a museum. It's the same whether you're doing it in an office or as a freelancer: since you don't own the work, you have no say in how the final product looks. As a freelancer, however, you do get to pick and choose your clients (depending on how good you are and how hungry you are at the moment).

I would only go into teaching if teaching itself is your passion. Otherwise you're going to feel stifled by the constraints by whatever institution it is that you're working for. Talk to other teachers in your family and see if you can get a better feel for the overall job, not just the classroom environment.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:54 AM on March 14, 2008

Sounds like you need to learn more about the world (on the whole) works:

1. Do things you don't like for money.
2. Do things you like for free.
3. On the occasions when you get money for something you like, count yourself lucky.

It's all about managing expectations.
posted by hatmandu at 4:57 AM on March 14, 2008 [13 favorites]

If you want control, you must first prove yourself. You haven't had enough time to prove yourself yet. Once you do, you can dictate your own terms. Until then, you'll have to put up with incompetent people dictating them to you.

The problem is that everyone has tastes, but not everyone has taste, thus everyone thinks they can be a designer by the mere fact that they have likes or dislikes. Which is patently absurd, but there's a low perceived barrier to entry which gives people a really inflated sense of ability.

I usually approach it like this: I don't tell my mechanic how to do his job. I don't tell my doctor how to do his job. Just because you can turn a wrench or measure your pulse doesn't mean you know what you're doing professionally. Similarly, just because you can pick up a pencil and draw a line or two doesn't make you an artist. Let the pros do the jobs that you pay them for.

Of course, you can't really get away with saying something like that unless you've got a shitload of work experience to back you up.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:06 AM on March 14, 2008

The biggest mistake young designers make is looking at all the great work that the hip, big-name designers seem to always get to do and assume that's what graphic design is always like.

The sad truth is that, for every hip, trusting client, there are about a bazillion small, cheap and micro-managing clients with poor taste that also need graphic design work. That's just the way it is.

Schools, unfortunately, tend to treat graphic design as a fine-art, and not as a creative service/business. This produces students with a lot of unrealistic ideas of what their chosen profession is all about. Hell, I've come across design programs that pop-out students without so much as a clue of how to properly prepare a piece for print. But they sure can build a nifty Flash GUI. Unfortunately, that small business client needs a brochure, not an arty website.

Your job is to create effective sales/promotion pieces for your clients, not "art". It will almost always be an exercise in compromise. Your job also entails a certain amount of education on the part of your client. Listen to his needs. Listen to his tastes. Evaluate them. Figure-out how you can take your client's input and make those small, obvious changes that can improve the quality and effectiveness of the communication. Be prepared to educate him/her as to why your changes improve the effectiveness of the message. Be prepared, as well, to toss-out your changes and give your client exactly what they want. In the end, that's your job.

Sometimes, you get lucky and you "wow" your client with your vision and they let you create and you both end up with something great. Those are the oasis' in the desert that we all live for. They are what keep us plugging-away, through the crap.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:02 AM on March 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

Its work get used to it. Part of becoming the consummate professional is leaning all aspets of the business.

Learning to deal with clients, and how to control them is key.

The more confidence you gain with clients it's far easier for them to be guided by you, after all, they like your portfolio and you are the expert. Failure to do this will keep you from running your own department or consultancy.
posted by mattoxic at 6:04 AM on March 14, 2008

Working within the brief is part of the design process. All of the great designers whose work we drool about had clients, budgets, deadlines, etc. If you can't deal with this, then you're probably not as good as you think you are.
Stop repeating how 'modest' you are and actually take a look at your real capabilities.

and if I need to know something, I can learn it fairly quickly

You need to learn how to deal with clients, very quickly.
posted by signal at 6:18 AM on March 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

I know that design is a lot easier when you are your own client and you have freedom to do what you want. But to be truly successful you need to learn how to deal with clients. I *know* how frustrating this can be. But you can't control other people. In my opinion, an attitude adjustment on your part would make you better. Instead of looking at the clients as your enemies, just view them as a part of the challenge of the job. Every time they provide feedback that requires changing your design, that is your opportunity to re-work the design to make it better. If you start to think this way, then I think the process will be less frustrating.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the clients don't know what they want. But, if they say that the type should be bigger, they are responding to something about the type. Maybe it doesn't really need to be bigger, maybe it should be a different typeface that has a larger x-height, or maybe it needs to be a darker color. What is important is to take their concerns seriously and make the design better in response in a way that satisfies both sides.
posted by daser at 7:35 AM on March 14, 2008

A big part of my job managing designers has been listening to this complaint. I have to say, everybody feels this way at some point, and the best people get over it and learn to deal with clients.

Our most successful designers have thought about clients in a different way. They've seen difficult meetings as opportunities: they listen to clients and figure out their needs, then (most importantly) they can talk intelligently about why they made specific design choices.

There's a world of difference between "this is great and that is tasteless," and developing great communication skills.
posted by faustessa at 7:49 AM on March 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

Treat dealing with clients as a professional challenge that must be overcome. You're a designer, dealing with clients is part of the job description; becoming a teacher will only introduce new soul-destroying headaches.

Learn how to incorporate client input that leads to a satisfying and superior end result. It's called professionalism.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:25 AM on March 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

You don't love graphic design.

Graphic design is serving the clients; what you love doing is making art, serving yourself.

One of the main skills involved in design work is being able to defend the work -- by which I do not mean "you may not make the logo bigger because I AM DESIGNER HEAR ME ROAR," but "a bigger logo would unbalance the layout in this and this specific ways; these are the specific reasons it's that size, and these are the specific reasons that making the logo bigger would actually detract from the brand rather than enhancing it."

Three separate skills going on in there. First, and most important, is that you've actually thought through the design enough that there are specific reasons the logo is that size, beyond "I instinctively think it's prettier that way." Second is being able to articulate those reasons in ways that non-designers can understand. Third and most difficult is being able to accommodate the change requests that will come in anyway, even the dumb ones, in ways that don't wreck the design.

If your clients are able to wreck your designs, you're doing it wrong.

It sounds like you have an inkling of this already -- you're right, it's a mixture of service and product -- but the black-and-white conclusions you come to are completely wrong. Clients can't tell you exactly what they want you to do because they literally can't; if they could they wouldn't need you. And you can't treat design as a finished, take-it-or-leave-it product because it literally isn't -- the design is there to enhance the client's product, that's the sole reason it exists; it can't be done in a vacuum. If it could, then those "buy a predesigned template!" hacks would be the peak of the industry.

This is true of all design. Book design, concept art, web design, layout, illustration, pretty much anything except fine art. So if you honestly can't deal with clients, your choices are to stop being a designer (e.g. go into teaching) or to buy a beret and a garret and become an Artist (and hopefully find a day job you can tolerate).

I don't think you should stop, personally. I think pretty much every designer goes through the phase you're going through; it's rough, but it gets easier as your skills develop.

Whether you realize it or not, every one of those stupid requests is making you a better designer, because it's making you think about the craft, instead of just going with your instinctive feel for what looks good. (Which is what you do when you design for yourself.)

The constant need to explain to clients why they shouldn't use comic sans and what whitespace is for and why less text might be more informative than more and all that stuff is good practice for you. Every one of those wrecked designs should be a learning experience. If you can't defend a design, you're not designing; you're just pushing pixels around.

Take a vacation. A long one. Get your breath back. Then go back to work.
posted by ook at 10:51 AM on March 14, 2008 [4 favorites]

I got an MFA in a creative field, thinking that it would empower me to make the work I wanted to make. I quickly figured out that nobody comes waltzing up to new grads bearing large checks, offering to bankroll their private artistic visions.

I worked in the field that I trained in for a little while, but found it very unfulfilling. The work was often grueling, frustrating, or just boring. I realized that it would take years to get to a point where I could have even a little creative influence over the work I did, much less total control.

Eventually I wound up completely splitting my creative and professional lives apart. Now I have a day job in an unrelated field where I earn my living, and a creative career which brings me a tiny income, but also complete control and a fair amount of fulfillment.

The day job keeps me on my toes, but doesn't interfere with my creative endeavors. I don't take my work home, rarely have to work late, and have a certain flexibility in my schedule. I also have enough down time at the office that I can manage some aspects of my "second career" during the day (e-mail, online research, updates to the website, etc.).

I have a good friend who does creative work in the same general field. But he earns his living in this field as well, as a freelancer for advertising and marketing agencies. And he seems to pretty much hate it. The work is extremely irregular, the money is meager, he has no control, and he gets little respect from the agencies he works for and their clients.

I wondered if I was a failure when I left the career field I trained for, but now I'm quite happy to have a wall of separation between how I make most of my living and what I do for creative fulfillment.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 11:33 AM on March 14, 2008

No time to read all the other posts, but I agree with checking out new agencies or going towards freelance to get new clients. Ever think about teaching in high school? The pay wouldn't be great, but the reward would be. I didn't know anything about advertising or design until my 2nd year of college, after I wasted my time doing what I thought I wanted to do (but really didn't). If I would have had the chance to take some design (not art, but graphic design, typography, layout, etc.) maybe things would have been different. I'm sure you could work some freelance stuff to pad the wallet on the side. I know at my college you could work as an adjunct, I'm not sure how that would work in a high school setting. If you're up for going back to school for a teaching degree, it could work. Sorry if that was redundant.
posted by whiskey point at 11:51 AM on March 14, 2008

I was where you are 2 years ago, now I write code. All of my friends that work in agencies have the same complaints.

I have to agree with everyone above that said that knowing how to deal with clients, and how to design stuff that actual people in the real world will buy, are very important aspects of a good designer. But there are ways to minimize the number of clients you have to deal with, and the intensity of the fights.

If you want to stay in the field, I recommend getting an in-house job. You have few internal clients, and they are always the same, this makes it easier to get to know them and learn how to prevail. The downside is that all of your projects will be very similar.

A couple of examples:

1. One of my close friends was an editorial designer at a university magazine. The magazine sucked, and on his own time, he prepared a pretty good spec for a redesign. It only had to be approved by the head of the communications department, and he had a great job for 2 years. Now he is the head designer for a book publisher. One client, one person to convince, once.

2. The designers at my current company. They basically design whatever they like. If users like it (we have instant access to this information), they iterate. If users hate it or don't give a damn, they move on. Very hard to argue that your design is better when no one is using it. Millions of clients, but no BS.
posted by Dr. Curare at 12:09 PM on March 14, 2008

You don't need to throw away your education, just find a different situation.

The suggestion of being an in-house designer is a smart one, since that can be a relationship where you are more part of the team than gun-for-hire. Maybe you could contribute to an organization you believed in.

What is out there that you think should be designed better? Well go find who is doing it and get them to pay you to help.

Don't be afraid to be your own client. Start a magazine with some friends and design it. Or maybe start a small press. Make things happen that YOU want to design. Yeah, it's hard work.

Find some people with taste you respect to create work for or to work with. Unless of course your disdain for all your clients comes from misanthropism. In that case you might want to find a job where you work alone.
posted by KS at 10:14 PM on March 20, 2008

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