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  • Ask Doctor Design

    Filed Under: Inspiration, Voice, advice

    Dear Dr. Design:
    What can I tell a client when I need to take longer on a design project than originally agreed?
    -Slow and steady

    Dear S&S:
    Tell your client that in order to do a good job, it will take more time than you thought. "I could show you something right now, but it just isn't good enough. I need more time." Most clients want a good job above all, and will find your honesty refreshing. If you're feeling bold, offer to show them what you have so far: maybe they can help. If this is a consistent problem, build more time into your schedule.

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    Dear Dr. Design:

    Do you think that design students lack sufficient understanding of business in order to be compatible in the professional environment?
    -Business Like

    Dear Like:

    There's so much to know about graphic design, it's no surprise most graduating design students don't know about business. This is usually only a temporary problem. If you're running your own office and you enjoy food, clothing and shelter, you'll quickly come to understand balance sheets and profit and loss, or find someone who does. In dealing with clients, knowing "business" in the general sense is less important than having a sincere interest in what it is they're trying to do. Usually, what they're trying to do is communication with people who don't understand their business any more than you do. This makes your ignorance an asset. Exploit it, and don't be shy about it.

    Finally, if you're seriously curious about business, there's no better place to learn about it than AIGA's Business Perspectives for Design Leaders program, an intensive week-long session at the Harvard Business School. Not cheap, but according to those who have attended, worth every penny.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    I am currently a third year design student on co-op. My co-op doesn't allow for much freedom in the work I do, and I want to create when I go home. It's a desire just to get better at design and software. My only problem is that I'm not really inspired to do so. Any suggestions on how to get inspired outside of the office?
    -Seeking inspiration

    Dear Seeking:
    The great thing about graphic design is that it's so easy to find graphic design projects. You want frustration? Imagine you're an architect, trying to get someone to let you spend a few thousand dollars on a bathroom renovation. It's hard to find a project if you're an architect. So consider yourself lucky. Look around. Design a birthday card for your roommate. Design a "lost dog" flyer. Start a blog. Send out a newsletter for other co-ops. Make a t-shirt. Change the numbers on your mailbox. Need more? Check out Ellen Lupton's great book D-I-Y, currently discussed at AIGA Voice.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    As a freelancer, I'm often asked to work on my laptop, since firms don't want to invest in a design station for an occasional contractor. Is it common for designers to charge the client/agency for wear and tear on their computer?
    -Lapdog

    Dear Lap:

    I don't know if it's common, but I admire your initiative. Go ahead and ask. They can only say no.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    I am a recent graphic design grad and have landed my first real design job in a small shop. We have a variety of different clients. I have been there for about two weeks and am having a real hard time trying NOT to mix my own personal style with what the client actually wants the look to be. I look at brand bibles, but still am having a difficult time. Please tell me this is normal!
    -Stylist

    Dear Stylist:

    You are normal. Your personal style is not the reason your employer's clients are there. Yet it's hard to make it go away completely. Give it a try anyway. Your style represents a comfort zone, and assuming your firm's clients don't actually want crap, it may be interesting for you to step outside it. On the other hand, if your firm's clients actually do want crap, nothing good will come of it and no "brand bible" will offer salvation. Find another job, fast.

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    Dear Dr. Design:

    I am going to be teaching a Freshman typography course starting this fall. Any recommended books or websites? Words or lessons of advice?
    -Teacher

    Dear Teacher:

    There are lots of good books on typography, including Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style, Erik Spiekermann's Stop Stealing Sheep, and the one I used as a youngster, Designing with Type by James Craig. But the one I would recommend most highly is Ellen Lupton's Thinking with Type. It's engaging, comprehensive, inspiring and even funny, and is accompanied by a terrific website at www.thinkingwithtype.com.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    There are good clients and there are bad clients, but sometimes you have a client that is a nightmare! Any thoughts on how to fire a client that doesn't understand that you are not a mere pixel-pusher that follows their uneducated creative direction? Or that thinks you are their personal designer that is expected to be at their beck and call?
    -No Pixel Pusher

    Dear NPP:
    Reforming clients is hard. Firing clients is easy. If you are a polite sort, say something like, "In reviewing the work we've been doing with you over the last year, I've realized that we are probably not be the right resource for you. You need someone who can simply execute your direction, and that really isn't what we're set up to do. You could save money, and, quite frankly, the hassle of arguing with us, by finding someone else to work with." (Less polite designers may have a shorter, more profane way of putting this.) You will be surprised how much fun this is. The tricky part, of course, comes with the money. People don't like being dumped, and they especially don't like writing checks to the person who did the dumping. If the client owes you money at the time of the conversation, you may never see it. Be prepared to pay that price for your freedom. Once you've worked up your nerve for this, be ready for one more thing: complete surprise on the part of the client. They may have no idea that you aren't as happy as they are, and may volunteer to mend their ways. This happens more often than you think.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    How are you managing usage rights these days? Any specifics help. While it doesn't come up often, it's something I always have in the back of my mind. How many designers charge a reuse fee if a client wants to reuse a design and update text and images? Are they met with resistance?
    - Usage Less

    Dear Less:
    Reuse must be negotiated at the contract stage. Many clients do not understand the issue and believe they are entitled to your files under any circumstances, so yes there can be resistance. This must be handled on a case by case basis, which is why having it in writing is imperative. You can always charge for reuse if you and your client can agree. Rights ownership and reuse are two different things. But if you are not doing work for hire then you own the rights to everything from a logo to a format.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    I did a small website for a client that quickly took up too much time in maintenance. Now the client wants my original files so a student can make changes. Do I have the right to refuse or can I sell them the rights? I don't want someone else taking credit for work I did. The kicker: Since it was a small job for a relative, there was no contract signed by either party.
    - Separation anxious

    Dear Anxious:
    As with Less, these issues must be spelled out. In the absence of a contract everything you do is in good faith. If you are being asked to update a menu or another revisable instrument, obviously the client should have access to files. If these "small" design changes are for a "big" job, then you should negotiate the right to approve, if someone else is going to do them. But whether you did this for free or were paid a king's ransom, unless the parameters are written down, you and your client could be at loggerheads.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    I am working on creating a resume. I've had trouble finding nicely designed resumes. I've looked at resume books, but none of the designs speak to me as a graphic designer. Most of the resumes I've looked at lack design. Do you know of any graphic design websites that have a resume that I can look at? Or could you point me to some good quality designed resumes online?
    -Job Hunter

    Dear Hunter:

    Most of the horrible resumes I see suffer from the syndrome of too much design, rather than too little. Use your portfolio as a demonstration of your design virtuosity, not your resume. That doesn't mean you shouldn't follow a few simple good design principles. Make it legible (no small type sizes or pale PMS colors, please). Use as few (classic) typefaces as possible. Organize the information intelligently. Don't design a logo for yourself. Do coordinate the design of your resume and your cover letter design. Finally, don't mispell anything.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    I have an ethical question. I am employed as a junior designer with an ad agency, but I am interested in looking for another design job. I want to create a personal website where I can show my portfolio to potential employers. Can I do this in good conscience while still employed? Most of the work in my online portfolio would be stuff that I have done at my current job. Also, I don’t know if this makes a difference, but I wouldn't be looking for anything in the same geographical area as my current company. Any advice would be helpful.
    -Concerned

    Dear Concerned:

    Online portfolios are relatively new, but your problem is not. It's faced by anyone who's employed in one job and looking for another. As long as you make it clear what you did and didn't do in each of the projects you show, you should have no ethical problems. Of course, an online portfolio presents another kind of problem: it might be seen by your current employer. Proceed with caution.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    How would you answer a potential client who was wondering why he or she should hire you, rather than paying the kid down the street or his brother-in-law who has a PC?
    -Competitive Type

    Dear Type:
    As a former kid down the street myself, and a professional who does the occasional (albeit PC-free) favor for my in-laws, I find this a hard question to answer. I would say something like: "The clients who choose to work with me do it because they think my years of experience and unique way of thinking are worth the extra cost. Not everyone agrees, of course, which is a good thing because I'm already very busy." Of course, ideally, the question never comes up. If they decide to go with Kid or Brother-in-Law, wish them the best of luck. Sometimes they come back.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    I am an assistant professor in graphic design in a fine arts department at a state university. I have an MFA from the Tyler School of Art, Temple University. I have been teaching for the last four years and have had great difficulty communicating to my faculty what we do as designers. The most difficult part of the discussion has been what is acceptable research and scholarship in graphic design. The faculty sees graphic design through the eyes of fine artists and insist that there is no difference. I have read and discussed the NASAD briefing paper, “Selecting and Supporting Graphic Design Faculty”, that was created by members of the AIGA. It is an excellent document that helps to clarify many issues I currently face. Unfortunately, my department doesn't quite get it and insist on creating their own “standard.” Do you know of any other documents that address this issue?
    -Assistant Professor

    Dear Assistant Prof:

    Sometimes the Doctor has to refer his patients to a specialist, so I've called in Paramedic Gunnar Swanson for advice. Here's what he has to say: “Other documents might be persuasive but I doubt it. It makes sense that your colleagues see graphic design ‘through the eyes of fine artists.’ That’s who they are. The fact that they insist that there is no difference makes sense, too. That’s the easiest way for them to deal with graphic design and many graphic designers tell them that in many different ways. Graphic designers at universities have often taken advantage of confusion over what they do and there are no common standards across different schools for research and scholarship in graphic design. (And I’d argue that there probably shouldn’t be.) You might start by developing suggested standards that are equivalent to fine art faculty requirements. Graphic designers don’t have the range of shows to enter that fine artists do; are graphic design annuals, books, and competitions the equivalent? What else is in their standards? Avoid the ‘there’s no way anyone can judge what I do’ syndrome. Any tenure and promotion decision should involve a pattern of work that has been reviewed and found worthy by disinterested experts. It doesn’t do graphic design or graphic designers any good to pretend that we should succeed merely by insisting on our value. Approaching faculty with clear and rigorous standards may sway them. It is more likely that you need outside help. Consider suggesting an outside panel to review the current standards and suggest changes. You are lucky enough to be in an area with many good graphic design programs so local panel members could be recruited from prestigious schools, making the process inexpensive and giving weight to their recommendations.” .

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    Can you give a little discussion as to the importance of “pacing” in a brochure? What do you aim for (purpose-wise) when figuring out pacing? Are there any guidelines for pacing? General rules? Definite no-no's?
    -Impatient

    Dear Impatient:

    Pacing is something you have think about in any sequential design experience, whether it's a brochure, a book, an exhibition, or motion graphics. There are no hard and fast rules, but I find it useful to think of it in terms of music. Some pieces of music are very syncopated, with lots of contrast from moment to moment (like “Swing, Swing, Swing” by Artie Shaw.) Others are more like Phil Spector's classic Wall of Sound: they hit one level and stay there (“Be My Baby” by the Ronettes). You can imagine the analogs for layout. The first is a little picture followed by a big picture followed by a blank page. The second is filling every spare bit of space from top to bottom. Either approach is valid; so are many others. The key is to be consistent, even if that means being consistent in your inconsistencies. And, like any improvising musician, know how you plan to end it.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    I am presently working at a software company as an interactive designer. I am the only creative force in the company. The job pays well, great benefits and is close to where I live. My only concern is that I get treated with no respect. I am surrounded by software directors and programmers who consider the creative arts as the lowest in the totem pole of Internet development. Naturally, I tend to disagree. What can I do to show the importance of what I do? Is this common in most corporate atmospheres?
    -Jonny

    Dear Jonny:

    Your situation is typical, but not inevitable. Remember, software directors and programmers aren't exactly the hottest dates in town. These are people who were nerds in high school, and having anyone at all below them in the totem pole is probably a novel treat. So turn the tables. Forget about trying to convince them that what you do is important. It will never work. Instead, try to show how what you do can make *them* important. You'll get all the respect you need.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    Though this may seem like a very silly question, it's one that always bugs me: How should one dress when interviewing at a “hip, young” firm or company? For instance a company like MTV. Suits and ties clearly aren't part of the company's culture. I always feel like I should be dressing more “hip” or stylish, like blue jeans and a suit jacket. Is overdressing possible?
    -Questionably Clad

    Dear Clad:
    If you did it with enough style, you could wear a baggy Brooks Brothers three-piece suit and make it seem cool; that's what magician Penn Gillette does. However, if you're insecure, that jeans and a suit jacket idea seems to work. If you're even more insecure, just wear black. Of course, the best strategy is to have such great work in your portfolio that no one notices what you're wearing.

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    Dear Doctor:
    For the last 5 years, I have worked as a graphic designer for web and print in various companies. My goals are to continue working in this field, but I am finding a need for more responsibility and compensation. I love to design, work in Flash, and sketch logos, but '“designer” positions seem to put me on the slow road to my career and financial goals. I'm concerned that standard MBA's might pull me out of the field I love. Recently, I have read about programs like the MPS in Design Management at Pratt. I'm not sure if this is a fairly new area of study, but it sounds very appealing to me. Attending graduate school is obviously a big decision to make (for me at least), so I appreciate any and all info you may be able to provide. I'd like to do my homework before making such a choice.
    -Ambitious

    Dear Ambitious:

    The best kind of homework to do is contacting individual schools and learning firsthand about their programs. You might also look at the graduate programs at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Design. Beware, however: combining ambitious financial goals and a passion for design is going to take balance and focus that most people aren't capable of. If you really want to make a lot of money, the faster route is to get an MBA and go into investment banking. You can then sketch logos during the many boring meetings you will have to attend while you're being paid so well.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    I'm getting tired of the long hours and late nights. Since I gave up caffeine (and booze) for health reasons, it's been even harder. I'm thinking of changing my career to something that is related to design in some way but not exactly. It needs to have reasonable hours (8 or so hours a day tops not 12 plus). Do you have any suggestions for those of us having a mid life crisis and who want to stay in a creative field related job but who also have trouble staying awake before the first commercial on John Stewart? (and that's on Central time in my case so Stewart is on an hour earlier).
     -Mid Life Fart

    Dear M.L.F.:

    More of them graduate from design school every year. What happens to them ten years later is a mystery to me. Congratulations on kicking the cappucino and Chivas on the rocks. With your newfound focus and energy, why not (and forgive me for saying this) become a suit? In other words, become one of those people who helps designers and clients work together to their mutual benefit. This takes patience, wisdom, and a little bit of sympathy for what makes designers tick in the first place. There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of eager young designers who are bursting at the seams with creative solutions. Someone who really understands both the business and the work is a rare commodity. And, if you're smart enough, you don't actually have to wear a suit.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    I need a prescription. My work needs a boost. I can't seem to keep up with the younger designers who are making all these great effects with computers and programs and talent too. My way is the old modernist way - clean lines of sans serif and stark color. But I know my way is also the old way. What tonic do I need to reinvigorate myself?
    -John F

    Dear John:

    There is nothing wrong with "the old modernist way"—just look at all the groovy designers who are deploying Helvetica-on-a-grid to great effect on cd covers for ambient drum-and-bass remixes. You're suffering from a crisis in confidence, brought on by a diet that you've made overly restrictive. You need a shock to the system. Here are ten quick solutions. Go to the library and look at some magazines from the 40s and 50s. Listen to the music that you loved in high school. Listen to the music that you hated in high school. Pick your least favorite typeface and set some big words in it. Spend a day where you don't work with words at all, but just shapes. Go to your favorite museum and look at your favorite painting. Then go to the part of the museum you never go to: antique musical instruments, Nordic Art of the Twenties, whatever. Take a class in flower arranging. Volunteer at a local homeless shelter. Teach.

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    Dear Dr. Design:

    I attend all the AIGA events that I can. They are very invigorating, but I can't seem to network well enough to be considered part of the community. I know this is weird, but I want to know and be known. I don't think its my breath, but can you tell me how to network.
    -Dejected

    Dear Dejected:
    Wanting to know and be known isn't weird. Connecting with other people is a fundamental human need. The best networkers don't even know they're networking: they just know and like a lot of people, are sincerely interested in them, and find lots of ways to make connections with and between them, often with no personal goal in mind. Dale Carnegie, author of the corny but classic "How to Win Friends and Influence People," breaks it down to a few simple things: smile, learn and remember the other person's name, and be really interested in what they have to say. You can start practicing at the next AIGA event. Find someone who doesn't seem to have anyone to talk to, walk up to them, and introduce yourself. And make sure about your breath.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    There are so many words for logo: logotype, logomark, symbol, wordmark, sign, etc. My friend told me that the term “identity design” should only refer to the complete identity system, not just to the logo. But since the logo serves as an identifier, is it right to use the term "identity" (not paired with the word "design") as a synonym for logo without referring to the whole identity system?
    -Yogi

    Dear Yogi:

    Both designers and their clients tend to be very imprecise about the way they refer to these things, and the definitions seem to actually be very fluid. “Identity system” is pretty clear: that's all of the elements that work in harmony to give an organization a characteristic visual presentation, including color, typeface, and even shapes and materials. On the other hand, there are lots of words that are used for the gizmo that often lies at the heart of it all. Strictly speaking, some people would say that a “symbol” is abstract (like Carolyn Davidson's Nike swoosh), a logotype uses typography (like Paul Rand's IBM symbol), and a wordmark is just straight-ahead type (like Massimo Vignelli's Knoll in Helvetica Medium). The word “logo” is vaguer, especially when clients use it (although I suspect they are usually picturing a symbol when they use it). I think your friend is right: colloquially, “identity” is shorthand for “identity system.” Designers seem to have invented “identifier” to give them maximum leeway in selling thinks like colors and shapes as valuable players in the mix, and properly so. All of this is fairly academic until you're writing a client agreement. Then it's good to be explicit to a fault.

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    Dear Dr. Design: During my design career I have met a lot of older web designers who are anti-Flash. They seem to be mostly people who started writing code when the internet boom was just starting. I think this opinion is based on the idea that Flash allows web design to be over-the-top and literally too flashy. What are your thoughts?
    -Macro Mediafied

    Dear Mac:

    How old is an “older web designer” anyway? 29? This reminds me of the arguments we used to have back in the day about how computers themselves were going to destroy design as we knew it. Tell those old farts that there's no such thing as a bad software tool, just like there's no such thing as a bad typeface. There are only (all together now!) bad designers. Use Flash as much as you want. Just don't be a bad designer.

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    Dear Dr. Doctor Design:
    Since I've graduated, I have gone to several interviews in different in-house departments and design studios. Most of the in-house department people I interview with and show my portfolio to, often reply to me with “you will get bored here”, or often emphasize the menial nature of the position offered and end up not giving me a job. And a couple of design studios have simply turned back to me saying “your work is beautiful” and then I don't hear back from them at all. I know this is testament to the worthiness of my portfolio and to the level of skill I have, but all it does is to make me want to present myself in a lower light so that I don't intimidate anyone. What should I do?
    -Catch-22'd

    Dear Catch:

    The hiring process works both ways: you want the position that's right for you, and the employer wants a designer who's right for the position. Do you really need the money? Do you really want a menial job? If so, put your light under a bushel and play dumb. You can always pretend you're William Powell in “My Man Godfrey,” enjoying your secret superiority over the idiots you're dutifully serving. The alternative is to hold out for a job that makes the most of your talents, which is obviously what I recommend. You only need one job. Hang in there.

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    Dear Dr. Design: I am currently a student in graphics arts at a local university. My education is about to complete and will looking to start doing independent work for myself. My question is this: can a PC do the same quality of work as a Mac? The university professors tell us that a Mac does the best work. But, since I will do work for myself soon and don't have that large of a budget to purchase a good Mac, I need to know whether a PC can do the same job for me. Thanks for you help.
    -Tommy

    Dear Tommy:
    Design work on a PC can be just as good as design work done on a Mac, the same way a turkey burger can taste just good as a real hamburger.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    Nearly 7 years ago I was lucky enough to get a job in a local (behind the times) copy shop as a designer using good old paste-up techniques along with a very old Mac. Before this I had no actual 'Design Education' and have had to learn through pure experience. I have always been told that I'm a creative person and excelled in art, music and other such like subjects back at school. Now, I'm 26 and it's 7 years down the line. I have moved on considerably and I'm currently a design manager in a studio at a budding design agency with my eyes on that all-important role of creative director (a few years down the line). I keep reading about “design education” being so important, but is this really the case? Even if I have a good portfolio of actual work will prospective employers, other designers and maybe even some clients turn their nose up at me for not being “educated?”
    -Steve

    Dear Steve:
    Education isn't important. Learning is important. Some of the designers I admire most, like Richard Wurman, Tibor Kalman, and even Paul Rand, never received a formal “design education.” Instead, they've had an insatiable curiosity about design—and art, and culture, and the whole world—that helped them grow as creative thinkers throughout their career. That's one of the great things about design. If your work is great, no one cares what diploma is on your wall.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    My newspaper at school is in the stages of taking off in a variety of ways. We've started enforcing our staff to think more visually and to find interesting ways to visually tell their stories. Here's the problem: while our designers are good with text and images, they're not good with graphical images. In terms of graphics (maps, etc), we're just not there. Where do we start? What software programs do they need? Are there templates for items like maps, or do we need to do them in freehand? Our school doesn't have a j-school, and we don't have a graphic design program, so we're going to have to train our own people. Any help you could offer me would be great.
    -Ryan

    Dear Ryan:

    You can give yourself a good education in information graphics with two convenient sources. The first are the extraordinary books of Yale professor (and one of this year's AIGA Medalists) Edward Tufte. Beautifully written and illustrated, they are directed not to the visual stylist, but rather to anyone who wants to use graphic design to communicate complicated data in a devastatingly effective way. The second source is The New York Times. Available in any local Starbucks, each daily issue is guaranteed to include at least one exemplary chart, map, or diagram. That's part of the reason that the Times has been honored not once, but twice, by the AIGA: for Corporate Leadership in 1989 and for their extraordinary coverage of 9/11 and its aftermath in 2001.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    I have a staff job and will soon have a new boss. This makes me nervous because I have a way of working (a style if you will) that may not conform with this person's vision. I don't want to be obstructionist. In fact, I want to help make this person's transition easy. But what are my options? Do I subsume my methods? Do I adapt anew? Do I accept that all things must change?
    -Plus ca change

    Dear Plus:

    I once heard that there is only one definition of doing a good job: making your boss look good. As long as you've got a staff job, this will be the central axiom of your life. But design is filled with subjectivity, emotion, egotism and passion, which makes making your boss look good a bit harder than it is for, say accountants (I think; jump in here, accountants!) No one does their best work when they're sublimating their personal expression. My advice is to welcome your new boss with, first, a sincere expression of your desire to make him or her look good, and, second, a review of the work you've been doing, how you do it, and how you think it serves your company's goals. Maybe your boss will love you and your work and you've got nothing to worry about. Maybe you can adapt to your boss's vision and learn something new in the process. Maybe you'll hate each other and you'll have to quit before you can get fired. Good luck!

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    The company I have worked for these past five years recently hired a new creative director from the outside and she was placed in charge of my department. I've done a lot of good design over the years at this place, yet she doesn't seem to like anything I've done. Obviously, we have a problem here. But I don't want to quit, and she doesn't want to fire me (don't know why). On my part it is equal bits of pride and, well, if I am going to be let go, I want severance. So Doctor, what do you suggest? Is there a chance I should weather this out (its only been a month)? Or, dare I ask, should I hire a someone to break her legs?
    -Made Man

    Dear Made:
    Although as a doctor everything we say here is completely confidential, I must tell you that if I learn of possible criminal activity, I'm required to report it to the authorities. At least that what Dr. Melfi says on the Sopranos. So lay off the legs. You sound like you live in the dark side of my previous patient's life. The advice is the same. March on in there and put your cards on the table. She shouldn't want someone working for her who does work she hates any more than you should want to work for someone who hates your work. Find a way to work together or find a new place to work. If the latter, try to work out something fair regarding your severance that reflects your five years of loyal service. Just don't break anything.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    A potential client recently contacted me to make a proposal. He was upfront in telling me that he asked four other design firms - he even named a couple of them. I run a comparatively small operation so to up the odds in my favor I proposed a low bid. Although I have no idea what the other firms proposed, I know that my prices are under market value. I feel that getting the job will increase my chances with other clients, so did I do the right thing or not?
    -Low Ball

    Dear Low:
    Competition is what good old American capitalism is all about, so of course you did the right thing. Maybe. Obviously, it's a lot better to compete on the quality of your work than on how cheaply you can deliver it. On the other hand, making a strategic decision to take on, say, a high-profile job that will lead to bigger and better things. The danger is not to get stuck in the trap of being the perennial "low cost" provider. Not only is it bad for your pocketbook, but fees are one way the business world measures respect. The higher the fee, the more seriously your clients are willing to take you. If you don't believe me, ask a lawyer (and then wait for the bill.)

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    I have two wonderful clients right now, and this is making me think it could be time to quit the day job and "go out on my own". However, since I don't know how I got so lucky in the first place, how can I be reasonably sure that I can get more client's that actually like my style and have some longevity?
    -Wishing for More

    Dear Wishing:

    You may not actually be all that lucky. My late father-in-law used to say, "The harder I work, the luckier I get." I've met a lot of people with regrets about going out on their own. Their regret is inevitably that they didn't do it sooner. Go for it.

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    Dear Dr. Design:
    I am a mid-level designer currently job hunting. I was wondering whether things have changed since I last searched for a job. Is showing my work mounted on boards and transported in a small case the more student-ish way to go? Do I need to convert my pieces into a portfolio book with clear sleeves?
    -Book Dilemma

    Dear Book:

    There are only a few rule for putting together a portfolio. Show only your best work. Show only things that don't require explanations or, worse, excuses. Less is better than more. Include a resume with no spelling mistakes. Send a thank you note to everyone who looks at it. Other than that, there are no rules. Experienced mid-level designers like yourself frequently take their actual printed samples and simply put them in a nice box; I tend to associate mounted boards and sleeves with student portfolios. The key is to consider your portfolio the ultimate design problem. Keep it clean, clear and simple and let the work shine.

    ----------------

    Dear Dr. Design:
    I learned a lot of communication theory in school (gestalt, perceptual, behavioral, linguistic). How much of what I learned should I actually spout when I'm proposing a project to client?
    -Over Educated

    Dear Over Educated:
    If your client is a communication theorist, you're all set: knock yourself out. But otherwise, try to describe a design solution in terms that your client will understand. This does not mean condescending to them, or forgetting about communications theory altogether. Nor does it mean that you should try to “educate” them to “get them to your level.” Instead, try to remember that your client, and most likely your client's audience, come from a class of normal people who don't want to know any more about gestalt theory than the average driver wants to know about the principles of internal combustion. They just want to get from here to there. Keep the focus on the journey, rather than all that complicated stuff under the hood.

    ----------------

    Dear Doctor Design:
    I work in publication design and recently presented my editor with a great piece of work. Well, I thought so, until he said, “We've done this before.” “Sure, its good, ”he admitted, “but it did not plow new ground.” I suppose I should be grateful that he wants to grow better crops and challenges me to do so, but why can't solid “good” be good enough?
    -Imaginatively Challenged

    Dear Challenged:

    This is a pretty alarming case, and we must proceed very cautiously. First, pinch yourself to confirm that you are not actually dreaming. Next, demand that your editor present proof that he is in fact an actual editor and not some crazy person dressing up as a pretend editor. Finally, make sure that this isn't some kind of cruel trick that your friends are playing on you. If you're satisfied that this situation is genuine, congratulations! You have somehow found yourself collaborating with an adventurous, risk-taking editor. From what I've heard, you may be the only designer in America in this situation. Now, I'm one of those people who has a keen appreciation of “solid good” and a healthy suspicion of anyone who strains for novelty. After all, three-chord rock has been done to death, but “I Saw Her Standing There” is still a terrific song. But you owe it to yourself to push yourself into the red zone and see how far your editor is willing to go.Good luck!

    ----------------

    Dear Doctor Design: I have worked as a designer and art director for many years and feel I have reached a dead end. Unlike an earlier correspondent, I do not have trouble getting work, I'm just not getting the work that I'd like. I've gone to a few good continuing-education workshops, but now I'm thinking of a more radical departure. Do you think a veteran like me should go back to school full time?
    -Ripe for Change

    Dear Ripe:
    Absolutely. Higher education, like youth, is largely wasted on the young.

    ----------------

    Dear Doctor Design:
    I work as a senior designer at a medium-sized design firm that does fairly creative work. I am given a lot of responsibility to do interesting jobs, but invariably everything I do goes past the extraordinary eye of the principal, who almost always makes me change something for the better. Well, that shouldn't be a problem, but I have been keeping a portfolio for the eventuality of getting a different job some day. I don't know whether or not I should include those pieces where he contributed his expertise. Am I a fraud if I do, or stupid if I don't?
    -Beholden Kaufield

    Dear Beholden:
    Graphic design, like most of the applied arts, is a complicated, collaborative enterprise. That means that nearly any complex project requires many hands for its successful completion. How these projects should be credited in competition catalogs and history books is just as complicated. But your question is a bit simpler, so here's the straight answer. If you present your portfolio in person, it's important to be honest. Explain exactly what you did and what you didn't do. Your potential employer will check: I know, because I've gotten those phone calls. If you drop off your portfolio, or submit it as printed samples or as a cd, I would caption them with similar honesty. (For example, “Creative concept and direction: Mr. Extraordinary Principal; Implementation, typography, project management, press supervision, client management: Beholden Kaufield.”) Believe me, I've come to think that people who can come up with “creative concepts” are a dime a dozen. Someone who does all that other stuff, and does it well, is a real find.

    ----------------

    Dear Dr. Design:
    I am 50 years old and recently fired from a design job I had for 15 years. Is there a place in the current market for a seasoned veteran who represents an “older school” of designing? And if so, how do I find it?
    -Under the Hill

    Dear Under
    :
    First, there isn't any “older school” of designing. There will always be room for designers of all ages with intelligence and imagination. Paul Rand had 32 years on you when he finally put down his pencil. That said, you're not going to be able to compete with some kid who will stay up three nights in a row kerning letter pairs for a skateboard catalog. In fact, if you're anything like Dr. Design, you have trouble making it to the first commercial on Jon Stewart. So what are your options? I can think of three. First, you can offer your services not as someone who does the design, but as someone who leads the design process for designers and their clients. If you think “account executive” is an ugly pair of words, make up your own. But face it: tons of 20-somethings have great craft skills, but that isn't what sells a solution to most clients. Instead, it's an understanding of the business and cultural context for their enterprise. Someone born in Ronald Reagan's second term simply can't bring the depth of understanding to these issues which you've gained in 30 years. Design firms can find energetic young designers pretty easily. Your skills can make you a rarer (and more desirable) commodity. Second, you can use those same skills to become an in-house design director at a corporation. At best, you'll have influence over the way a large enterprise communicates with its audiences, customers and employees, and you can do the world some good. At worst, you can spend six months putting together a Powerpoint presentation for the CEO on whether the dot over the “i” in Amalgamated Widget should be round or square. And either way, you'll get good medical benefits and be surrounded by people who are mystified by what you do. Third, you can simply take the job from which no one can ever fire you: you can work for yourself. It's a daunting step, but ask around and see if you can find a single person in this situation who regrets making the leap. The only thing they ever regret is that they didn't do it soon enough. And if you're lucky, your next 25 years may be the best of your life.

    ----------------

    Dear Dr. Design:
    If one doesn't want to offend, what's the safest choice of typeface?
    -Crystal Goblet

    Dear Crystal
    :
    Ubiquitous typefaces like Times, Palatino and Helvetica are not just inoffensive but gratingly boring. Interesting typefaces, and in this category (since you're playing it safe) you may as well include any typeface designed since the Beatles played on Ed Sullivan, are too, um, interesting. Of older typefaces, Gill is too English, Bodoni is too Italian, Baskerville and Caslon are too contrasty, and Century is too Dick-and-Jane. That leaves Garamond, the typeface that everyone can agree on. But even here there's a catch: never use ITC Garamond. Its post-“She Loves You” vintage, unusually large lower case x height and overuse in ’70s and ’80s advertising pretty much did it in. Stick with Garamond No. 3 or Adobe Garamond. No one will compliment you on your choice of typeface, but no one will complain either.

    ----------------

    Dear Dr. Design:
    I've got a great opportunity to get a fantastic project, but the client is asking me to work on spec, that is, without compensation, and in competition with other firms, getting paid only if I get the job. Should I do it?
    -Eager Beaver

    Dear Beaver
    :
    How's this for an answer: no. If you want to discuss this more, let's say you and me meet in a restaurant where they let you taste various dishes off the menu and you only have to pay for the one you like. And you're buying.

     

    Doctor Design is a kindly practitioner whose many years of experience make him uniquely qualified to offer advice to the confused, the desperate and the curious. His views do not necessarily represent those of AIGA.

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