Precious (Little)

Look at you, my precious little layout: so subtle yet innovative with your exquisite use of color and dynamic illustration! How could they not love you? Love might not be a strong enough word to describe the intense emotion that should follow triumphantly once you are on display. I wish I were better with words or had a thesaurus on hand as I yearn to describe you in the way that only you—that's right, my sweet—deserve.

Alas, the client never seemed to share my little love affair and I saw fit to take it personally each and every time this would occur. Falling in love and then having it pried away from your clutching hands can be paralyzing once—but having it happen on nearly a daily basis for over a year can be numbing. I struggled with project after project. How could they not love my design? How could they not love my art? How could they not love me???

It would take far too long for me to see the error of my ways. Like a stubborn stallion I was determined not be broken—and like a stubborn stallion I had little idea that I was about to be put out to pasture if I didn't straighten up.

I had to re-examine everything I thought about design—and do it quickly.

One morning I awoke to find that I was the only contact between my clients and me. My adversarial relationship from afar was going to prove exhausting from up close—and mighty unproductive on all sides. I set about examining what I could do to improve this process. What I discovered was that the person who held my position before me had done a wonderful job of setting up all of the administrative needs and that the true thing holding back the projects was my treating the work so preciously. I had to re-examine everything I thought about design—and do it quickly. My years of arguing for my decisions had done me well in college, but they had also made me defensive, and a line had become blurred between painting class and intro to graphic design. At last I saw things clearly for the first time.

Design is not art, so don't treat it as such.

I am not getting into some abstract argument about what “is” and “isn't” art but rather looking at it from a fundamental distinction: art to me is a selfish endeavor. You are trying to reveal something about yourself in your creation and the interpretation is open to many levels for the viewer. In design, you should ultimately be selfless. You certainly bring a part of you along for the ride but your journey is made in someone else's shoes: the client's (remember them?).

Once I started to think in this fresh mindset, all of the projects I was working on instantly improved both the final solution and the working relationship needed for completion. No more nights spent cursing a client's criticism of my presentation. No more conflicted emotions, taking each line of an email as a personal attack. Instead, I took each word for what it was—a dialogue between the person I was working with and a more visually savvy version of themselves on the other line. It often turned out that my clients knew much more about their business than I did (shocker!) and could solve their problems with just a little assistance from me, if I acted as a sounding board and stopped talking so much. Suddenly this was actually becoming a pretty rewarding job! My only regret was that I didn't start on it sooner.

About the Author: John Foster is VP, Creative at fuszion. He is an international speaker on design issues including appearing at the HOW Design Conference in 2008, 2006 and 2004. His work has appeared in numerous books, galleries, magazines and journals and is part of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s collection, among others. He is the author of Maximum Page Design and New Masters of Poster Design, as well as the forthcoming For Sale: Innovative Packaging Design, Dirty Fingernails and a monograph on Jeff Kleinsmith, for Sub Pop Records. Foster also writes a popular weekly column on music packaging, “Judging a Cover by its Cover,” for