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As no military plan survives contact with the enemy, no design
concept survives contact with the client. Both situations feature
laboriously (if not lovingly) crafted plans blown away by reality.
The endgames differ in that designers define victory as gaining
that initial approval.
Ideally, the design proposal would emerge unscathed. As if.
Amongst themselves, designers acknowledge the possibility of having
to deviate. But capability statements prominently tout variants on
the term "strategy." Designers may cite adaptability in their skill
set. However, having to exercise the ability isn't popular. It's
bad enough when it's just due to stuff happening, like technical
glitches. But to change course due to someone's uninformed opinion
can be galling.
The favored client is one that gets out of the way. Otherwise,
for designers (and generals), resistance is to be overcome.
Minimally, it's an irritant. The role of opposition obviously isn't
well regarded. However, it's one that bears reappraisal. Clients
generally do need to be more sophisticated. But the reasons and
results aren't what one might assume. And while strategy is vital,
flexibility needs to move up in the hierarchy. The ability to
change course effectively should be valued just the same as
charting a course, then following it unwaveringly.
Good work is usually thought to occur despite, not because of
client involvement. In most descriptions of designer activity, the
client quickly disappears after demonstrating the good taste of
selecting the designer. If they reappear during the process, it's
usually to impede the designer by offering an opinion that
interrupts the smooth execution of the strategy. Preferably, they
only reenter in the last act to embrace the solution with
near-orgasmic glee or congenial admiration for a new-found
This narrative is most prevalent at the elite levels of design.
Notoriety in the field arguably comes from a designer's ability to
regularly avoid concession—or have it be negligible. Such purity is
rare. But given the choice, designers would overwhelmingly opt for
an unfettered practice.
The necessity to compromise, to adapt to circumstances, makes
design difficult to practice. This is especially true if
practitioners doctrinally follow particular formal and/or
conceptual approaches. To avoid concession, designers attempt to
"educate" clients out of obstructionism. This amounts to launching
a PR campaign for old tactics rather than actually changing
Though compromise is a fact of life, it's a troublesome topic in
our individualistic culture. Graphic design's stature as art to its
practitioners (however strident claims to the contrary may be), and
the popular view of art as "self-expression," makes compromise akin
to selling out. What else could explain the popularity of Ayn
Rand's The Fountainhead amongst designers? It ain't the
Designers do make a strong case that their way is best, as they
dedicate their time and livelihoods to mastering visual rhetoric.
Even if designers merely manipulate graphic grammar, they're the
most adept at it. Educated clients should realize this and give
Design eagerly anticipates the emergence of these patrons and
the nirvana to follow. However, the educated client may not be the
savior designers presume. Their appearance will signal not the
start but the end of a golden age.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, designers—especially at the
elite level—largely have their way. Clients regularly concede
points and power. They're susceptible to personality and patter.
Legendary designer/client relationships, such as Paul Rand and IBM,
set a bad precedent. They distorted the roles and raised
A new, sophisticated client will ask informed questions and
expect substantive responses. Those answers may not be forthcoming.
Designers have limited experience facing a worthy opponent. So far,
clients have failed to mount a substantive challenge to designers'
If design is (as often claimed) gaining stature, challenge may
come soon and often. Will designers be prepared? Practice might be
gained from some in-house resistance in the form of criticism.
Unfortunately, it's been marginalized, driven underground. (It's
design's version of "Don't ask, don't tell.")
Design's lack of notoriety and respect as a substantive cultural
activity (such as journalism or architecture, to name two) is due
in part to the lack of productive resistance. Identity is
significantly shaped by the quality of one's opponents. They can
serve as a hone. That sparks fly isn't always an indicator of
The state of design cannot be attributed to designer or client
alone. It's a dynamic that may be adversarial and
advantageous. Clients need to be given their props as contributors
to good design.
The way to produce the sophisticated adversary is an open
question. Designers may have little or no influence. But they can
modify their attitudes and behaviors. Too often, client input is
regarded as a de facto detriment, irrespective of content. And
freewheeling, personal aesthetic achievement is regarded as
design's highest prize. True collaboration and accommodation, not
simply its rhetoric, should be the goal. The result will be a
process that can truly be called the good fight.
Sharing sneak peaks of client work in progress might be a fun game to play, but Zelle calls foul on the practice.
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A founding partner of the design firm Pentagram, Colin Forbes designed the practice of design itself. In 1991, he was awarded an AIGA Medal.
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